Emer

 

The very last of the blackberries and haws had long withered off the stark brambles as a final reminder that the old fruit was truly over and Imbolc, heralded by the blooming of deciduous plants, was not far off. The imminent feis, the time the old gods demanded sacrifice to ensure the birth of animals, renewed crops, along with the rejuvenation of all living things in the coming fertile time of the land, should be a time of joy but Emer knew the preparation for the feasting her father and brothers demanded meant extra work for her. She lived with three older brothers and her father, Forgall Monach the Cunning, in the dreary ráth, on the promontory defended on three sides by the cold grey sea while triple defensive ramparts protected its rear.

Hemmed in by the sea and wattle palisades, Emer longed to leave, to see and be part of the life at the court of Conor, king of the Red Branch warriors at Eamhain Macha, the sacred heart of the Ulaidh, tales of which she had overheard from Breoga, the trader, and she ached to go there.   She hated everything.  She had never known her mother who had died of the bloody flux when Emer was yet an infant and she hated that. She hated her home here – the only place she had ever known.  

She despised and feared her father who either ignored her or vented some unknown rage on her, usually after drinking too much of his favoured black brew.  She detested her hulking and brutal brothers who treated her badly even though she was a fully-grown woman, scaring off possible suitors and bullying her with their constant threat of unprovoked violence. Recently, Scibar, her eldest brother, in a fit of rage at the lack of barley beer he liked to drink, smashed the supporting branches of seasoned ash she used for her loom. Cursing her mindlessly, he had hurled away the heavy stones used for pulling down the strands of wool and scattered her precious purple and red vegetable dyes and the tiny strands of ochre that produced a glowing yellow which Breoga claimed were the stems of flowers.  

Endlessly turning the heavy top stone of the quern to grind the wheat and barley for their pottage and stews, Emer felt irritated beyond all measure by her brothers’ grunts and bellows as they practiced at arms, stamping round and round the trampled yard so it was hard to know if it was two against one or all three against each other. Impulsively, she stood up and wandered down the muddy, rutted track leading from the porch outside the hall to the palisade gates, the woodland sounds of the nearby forest replacing the clash of wooden training swords against light wicker shields.  

From where she sat, outside the entrance to the ráth, she could smell the richness of the soil as the bondsmen tilled their fields of barley and oats bordering the forest where the Ailibine river, swollen now with runoff, marked the end of the territory of the Fingal in the hilly country to the south.

In the other direction, Emer could see the ancient burial mounds of the Fir Bolg at Cerma, which lay, she had been told, north from her home here on the promontory of Benn Etair, to the sacred site of Teamhair and on to Eamhain Macha and she was determined to go there. She knew that she could do anything and was equal to any task.  What she lacked in strength, she made up for with intelligence; what she lacked in skill, she made up for with flexibility and speed.

Sitting by the gates, plaiting her long golden hair, she was pleasantly alarmed by the sight of a chariot skilfully driving over the corrugated log track emerging from the forest.  Squinting into the glare of the noontime sun, she could just make out the seated charioteer, a yellow band around his forehead.  Standing behind him on the open framework of the chariot was a slight figure.  Almost unconsciously, Emer noted his handsome muscled frame and his cocky self-assuredness but what really struck her was his startlingly dove grey eyes which seemed to transfix her.  A flush crept up from her neck, tingeing her creamy pale cheeks with a soft hue while the charioteer reined in his horses effortlessly with one hand.  The youth, beardless and black browed, his hair, thick and smooth as if a cow had licked it, three hanks hanging down over his muscled shoulders, stared at her in open-mouthed admiration, his gaze dropping shamelessly to her breasts pushing up over her tight bodice

Annoyed by his blatant stare, she recovered her poise and stood up, flinging her long plait back over her shoulder.

“May your road be blessed, stranger,” she said boldly, forcing him to meet her eyes. 

“May the apple of your eye see only good,” he replied, dropping his eyes again to gaze at her breasts.  “I see a sweet valley where I could lay my weapon to rest,” he smiled, lighting up his sombre face and showing the dimples in his smooth cheeks.

Blushing despite herself, Emer pulled her linen cloak firmly around herself but before she could reply to his insolence, Scibar, and her two other brothers, Connad and Ecet, appeared from inside the ramparts, still clutching their notched and battered wooden training swords.

“Who is this beardless brat and what does he want here?” Scibar rudely demanded while Connad and Ecet sniggered and grinned, jostling forward to enjoy the stranger’s mortification at the rough hands of Scibar.  

“Put a guard upon your tongue, grimy one, or the tongue that runs so glibly in your head should run the very head off your shoulders,” the stranger replied casually, looking the three brothers up and down from tousled head to dirty feet before returning his gaze to Emer and giving her his full attention.

With a roar of rage, Scibar raised his wooden training sword but before he could begin the downward swing, the stranger vaulted one-handed over the side of his light chariot, stepped inside the swing and punched him hard in the mouth. 

Scibar rocked back on his heels and before he could recover, the stranger with a lithe movement, slipped behind and kicked his legs out from under him, while snatching the wooden training sword from a startled Ecet and smashing the heavy hilt up into his nose, sending a sudden mist of blood to splatter across Connad’s incredulous stare.  

Flipping the sword in the air, the stranger caught it by its blood-smeared hilt and slammed the flat of the blade once, then twice, across Connad’s ribs.  The rounded tip of the training sword digging suddenly into the base of his neck suddenly arrested Scibar, stunned by the suddenness of the attack, from struggling to his feet while the youth winked insolently at Emer,

Before she could gather her wits, Forgall the Cunning, attracted by the noise, appeared at the entrance to the palisade.  Taking in at a glance his bruised and battered sons, he held up a commanding hand to stop further fighting while the youth bowed his head courteously to the older man.

***

Dusk was falling when Forgall, disguised as a pedlar, was admitted through the gates of the great hill fort at Eamhain Macha, home to the Red Branch, defenders of the Ulaidh, before they were closed for the night.  Progress had been slow since leaving the promontory fort until he reached he great road leading directly to Eamhain Macha itself – but even then, it had been a long trek across the plains of Brega and crossing of its numerous fords had all taken time.

Common hospitality now saw his admittance to the hill fort and the heavy packs of trade goods slung on his mule ensured it. Once the gates closed, guards and dogs patrolled the gates and walls and no one would be admitted unless first acknowledged by Scél the gatekeeper but, at last, Forgall smirked, he was inside and led to the lodge of the Craobh Ruadh. Here in the great feasting hall of the once boy king, Conor mac Nessa, it was custom for all visitors to Eamhain Macha to pay their respects in the great feasting hall.  Forgall glanced around the crowded benches where boys, supervised by older women, oversaw the spits on which oxen roasted. Dogs lay panting, around the hall, all looking towards the main fire pit. The trestle tables were almost full and most men were drinking, waiting for their meat.  Girls, the skirts hitched to avoid the soiled rushes strewn on the beaten earth and to avoid the outstretched dogs, scurried among the benches keeping the men’s mugs topped up. Most were drinking the dark drink of hops and barley, flavoured with honey and heather from the western mountains.

 Good, Forgall thought, the pup was there, talking to that old fool, Fergus Mac Rioch. Fergus, who by right of birth had been king, had thrown it all away for the lures of Ness, daughter of the yellow heel, Conor’s mother. Conor became king, for a year once, and then that year had extended until today.  That was many years ago now and people whispered that at the time, Cathbad, the draoidh, had influenced the situation in, as yet, unseen ways. Hunching down slightly, Forgall pulled the hood closer around his face and assumed the humble look of an honest peddler looking for favour from a noble host.

Conor showed the effect of his debauched youth. Long, lank, greying hair framed a foxy narrow face. Thin and restless, he seemed to almost squirm in his seat, bored with the tales of his lords, Conall Cernach the Victorious, red-faced and solid as a block of oak and Bricriu of the Bitter Tongue on either side of him.  Forgall took a space on a bench further down from the head of the hall.  Opposite, but to his left, Phelim the harper, father to the hapless Deirdre long promised to Conor, sat talking to Dáire, lord of the bull of Cooley. Fergus sat further away beside his queen, Ness who was talking to the slack faced youth on her other side.  Other warriors, unknown to Forgall, jostled each other, already noisy with the drink in them. Trenchers of bread were being laid on the tables and Forgall took the opportunity to grasp a serving girl by the wrist as she passed and obtain a mug of the dark brew the men were drinking. Ness, he saw, held a delicate vessel of some semi translucent material into which she had a kneeling girl serve her from a flagon of Gaulish wine.

Deichtine, Conor’s step-sister – or some say, Forgall sniggered to himself, his one time lover and favoured chariot driver – amused herself by the antics of a wolf hound pup rolling on its back at her feet.

Conor’s eye fell on the hooded figure and he leaned forward on the table, rapping the flagon in front of him with the ivory hilt of his knife to gain attention. 

“So, peddler, from where do you come and what news do you bring us from your travels, for we have not seen you here before?” he called out in a high, piping voice.

Standing and bowing slightly but keeping his face averted, Forgall called out, 

“I come from the land to the south of the border with the gracious lady, queen Medb of Connachta and have marvelled at the bounty and grace of the noble lady but rarely have I seen such splendour with which King Conor is surrounded.”

“Well spoken, peddler,” broke in Bricriu, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand as he sloshed down his mug, “but still we have not heard your news.”

“I am just a plain peddler with some trinkets that might amuse the ladies but I fear I have little of interest for the lords of Eamhain Macha, except, perhaps, tales of a young hero to whom Queen Medb has shown favour.”

“Heroes,” roared Conall Cernach, his stentorian voice in booming contrast to Bricriu’s high-pitched tones.  “Who needs heroes when we have champions enough, for every man here,” he glared along the table, “is a champion while our boys in the Red Branch will take the red cloak of the warrior soon enough?”

“So who is this hero that Medb favours, do tell us, another young bull to add to her herd?” cut in Conor, his voice flat and disinterested.

Forgall paused, taking in quickly the rapt attention of the young man at Fergus’ side – the beardless pup, who did he think he was to attempt robbing Forgall of his golden haired treasure?

“No, my lord,” he murmured.  “A true hero sent by the Lady Medb to train in far Dál Riata, with Domnall Mildemail. Only such a man is fit to be called a hero, much less a champion, one who has mastered the arts of war shown by Domnall the Soldierly. They say,” Forgall paused and glanced sideways at the youth, “he has been promised the hand of Emer, daughter of Forgall Monach, the lord of Ben Etair on his return.”

Fergus looked up and grunted, “Aye, I have heard of Domnall of Dál Riata and the warriors he trains at his fortress there.  No finer men would you find in a long day’s march. Aye, I met Domnall in long days past – a hard man, I’d say.”

“His fortress of stone and solitude,” scoffed Bricriu, “a barren wasteland with no pasture for cattle. Let him keep his kingdom there and stay in peace for if the men of the Ulaidh were to rise up, this narrow sea between here and Dál Riata would evaporate from the heat of our passage and reveal the fullness of the dark stone causeway.” boasted Bricriu.

“No doubt that is true,” the peddler assented, his head still bent submissively, “but they say only the hero who has mastered the skills of warfare at Domnall’s rough hands will win the love of the lady Emer.”

“Surely everyone from this kingdom is better than the best that this Domnall can train?” The dark haired youth beside Fergus suddenly erupted angrily.  Up on his feet, one bunched fist grinding against the trestle table in front of him, he glared around the hall.

“Good man, Cú Chulainn,” Bricriu jeered. “You’re the very man to uphold the honour of the Red Branch and Ulaidh.”

Pushing back from the table so that he stood fully erect, before all eyes, the boy shimmered and changed, no longer a callow youth who sat submissively at the side of his sworn lord, his body contorted and transformed into the lean, muscled form of a warrior with the blood lust on him. The thick hanks of dark hair falling to his shoulders caught the light from the tallow lamps behind him and appeared edged with fire while his eyes, hard and grey, flicked from man to man with the harshness of slingshots, dominating the room. Hushed, lords and men, serving girls and even the dogs seemed suspended in motion, like dust motes caught in a ray of sunlight in a darkened porch.

“What talk is this, men of the Ulaidh? Let no man among us, even beyond the borders of the five fifths of Ériu, dare say that Ulaidh does not have a warrior who exceeds any man that this Domnall of Dál Riata can train, excelling even over the hard Domnall himself.”

Cú Chulainn paused and glared down the hall, his immense shadow flickering and shifting on the panelled wall behind him.

“Should any man here doubt that the Ulaidh has the equal and the best part of any so-called hero that comes from the rocky, barren coast of Dál Riata, I myself, Sétanta mac Súaltaim, the hound of Culann, will undertake the voyage over the cold, grey sea to meet and best this master of warfare before returning to the Ulaidh to claim the prize of the hand of the lady Emer.”

“Well spoken, Cú Chulainn, my favoured nephew, but no one here could ever doubt the ability of one such as yourself.” murmured Conor. The momentary silence following the king’s pronouncement was interrupted by a discreet cough and the king turned his jaded eyes on the peddler.

“Well and bravely spoken, young master,” Forgall began hesitantly, as if reluctant to speak frankly of the thoughts that all would behold to be common truths.

“Yes, go on; speak your mind, man,” rumbled Conall.

“Well, it is known that Domnall only accepts the best of the best, men at their battle prime and even then,” Forgall paused for regretful respect, “many are the men who do not return from their training and I say men, because no beardless youth such as the young lord here, could possibly master the feats – the shield vault, and the arts of slaying unknown to most – to even dream of being admitted to such a testing environment.” 

Forgall bowed his head lower in mute subjection to the favour of the king, but not before he saw the youth, now returned to his early form, tense again, only to be restrained by the cautionary hand of Fergus.  

“In fact,” the peddler continued quietly, “I have heard that Lugaid Mac Nois is preparing to undergo the challenge and all know that Lugaid is well–seasoned in the art of warfare and raiding.”

At the mention of Lugaid’s name Cú Chulainn sat up straighter and glared at the hooded peddler.

***

“So, what happened then?” Ferdia mac Damáin, fostered at Eamhain Macha since childhood, had become fast friends with the small, dark-haired boy when he had arrived so unexpectedly at Eamhain Macha the first time. Now, he had ridden up to the heights of Sliabh Fúait, bringing stirabout made with fresh milk and wheaten meal flavoured with honey as well as a flask of red wine, to hear more of Cú Chulainn’s tales from his recent trip south to Laighain.

“Well, the old man made it clear that only a hero would be worthy of his daughter’s hand and that as far as he was concerned, I wasn’t exactly hero material,” Cú Chulainn began.

“But you’d just beaten the cess out of his three sons, wasn’t that enough for the ould fool?” Ferdia put in.

“Arragh, I could have done that with my eyes closed and one arm behind my back!” Cú Chulainn boasted. “Anyway, as I was leaving, Emer, … oh Ferdia, she is so beautiful, if I could just rest my head between … I mean on …” 

“Yeah, yeah, but go on, Emer what?” Ferdia demanded, passing over the wine skin to his foster brother.

“Right, as I leaving, I managed to have a few words with her and she told me that her father would not tolerate any suitor for her hand unless he had killed a score of men at every ford on the river Ailibine and done the salmon leap carrying twice his weight in gold.”

“Is that all?” Ferdia laughed.  “You’re right, you’d have to be a quare ould hero to do all of that stuff, right enough.”

“It’s no laughing matter,” Cú Chulainn snapped, glaring at his friend.  “To make matters worse, she told me that the whole thing is just her father’s way to get rid of suitors.”

“What did you say then?” Ferdia asked, more sympathetically.

“What do you think?”  Cú Chulainn gulped more wine, a trickle running down his smooth chin.  “I said I would do it all and more for her and nothing would keep me from her and she promised that she wouldn’t even look at any other men until I returned for her.”

 “He’s not called Forgall the Cunning for nothing, is he?” Ferdia said, clunking his mug gently against Cú Chulainn’s.  “Does that mean you are going to do it, crazy as it sounds?”

Cú Chulainn paused, gulped from the mug before getting up and pacing up and down beside where Ferdia sat.

“That’s what the peddler said,” he continued. “A suitor to Forgall’s daughter’s hand has to complete training with the warrior chieftain Domnall Mildemail the war-like and the chieftain, Scáthach the Shadowy One, in Dál Riata, as well as being able to perform other wondrous feats, that sort of stuff.” 

“Well, you know, look at it this way, a bit of travel, see a different world, meet new people …, it could be a chance to have some fun.” 

Ferdia leaned back against the boulder and stared up at his friend.  

“She must have been very special, I’ve never seen you like this before, what’s this her name is, again?”

“Emer.” Cú Chulainn spun around and stared at his friend, “I tell you, when I first saw her sitting there, the blue of the sea dulled by the beauty of her eyes as bright as flowers, as I came down the track from Magh Brega, I just knew, she has to be the one. She has the most amazing…,” Cú Chulainn stopped and started again “…she looks so … she’s …,” words failed him and he suddenly sat down opposite Ferdia.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“What can I do? I promised to return, I told her.  You would too if you could have glimpsed that sweet valley.” Cú Chulainn drained his mug and banged it on the ground beside him. “I said that no father or brother or any man alive would stop me the next time I come looking for her.  And I meant it.”

“Lookit here to me,” Ferdia suddenly said, “Cú Chulainn, I’ll go with you, we’ll watch each other’s backs, what do you say?  We are foster brothers, aren’t we, sworn to each other by blood oaths and firm friends?  We’ll go together and take on all comers and make our own mark in the world for how else are heroes made? Not by sitting on our arses here, that’s for sure.”

***

Dusk was falling and Scél mac Bairin had herded the lactating ewes inside the lambing enclosure and was hobbling around inside, busy lighting rush torches in the courtyard around the Craobh Ruadh in celebration of the lengthening days and the early signs of the passing of Samhain.  The flares from the torches and the blackthorn fires reminded Cú Chulainn, recently returned from Dal Riata, of the return of warmth and the increasing power of the sun over the coming days and Cathbad had already noted the new sprouting of leaves, and the appearance of the first crocus flowers.

Scél, his diminutive shadow bobbing against the wall of the Red Branch lodge, cackled with pleasure at the thought of badgers coming out from their den now that the dark days of Samhain were coming to an end until Cú Chulainn barked at him to find Ibar the charioteer.

Cú Chulainn sat back by the camp fire of blackthorn wood, which burned slowly with good heat and little smoke, his long, dark hair tinged with crimson from the firelight, thinking of the girl he had promised to find when he had returned from his training in Dál Riata. 

Lugaid mac Nois had openly admitted the night before that he had been invited by Emer’s father to court the girl but had manfully refused when Emer had told him of Cú Chulainn’s prior interest.  Cú Chulainn looked up from the flames at the sound of a discreet cough and saw a small man waiting respectfully nearby.

“My father told me to tell you that he can’t come.  He sent me instead.  He’s got a bit old now and says he is not up to your tricks.”

Cú Chulainn glared at the young man for a long moment before he understood the glimmer of humour in his eyes.

“And I suppose you think you are up to it?” he demanded, standing up and pushing the youth in the chest.

Laeg remained stock still under Cú Chulainn’s jabbing finger. He was barely taller than the homunculus, Scél the gatekeeper, but he was broad chested and long limbed with strong arms and he stood firmly on stout legs.

“My name is Laeg mac Ibar mac Ringambra and like my father and his father before him, I wear the yellow band of the master charioteer now,” he said proudly “and anything my father could have done, I can do – and better,” 

“Right then so,” Cú Chulainn grinned, clapping his hands together and rubbing them briskly.  “I need a driver who knows how to leap chasms, not afraid to use the goad and able to back up straight without me being a backseat driver. I fight, you drive, and if you want to give advice, I’ll ask for it.”

“When do you want to leave?” Laeg asked, pleased with Cú Chulainn’s obvious acceptance of him.

“First light in the morning, harness the sickle chariot and we go to Ben Etair in the kingdom of Laigheann where there is a girl I fain would see now and let no man or beast prevent me from doing so!”

***

Laeg hopped onto the open front of the chariot, taking the reins in his left hand, his right shoulder against the right forward side arch of ash wood with one foot braced against the opposite arch, his right foot extended onto the pole leading to the yoked ponies.  At a nod from Cú Chulainn, he expertly guided the light chariot over the coarse grassed, bumpy plain, rutted with old chariot tracks, to the north of Brúgh na Bóinne and forded the Boann river heading south towards Luglochta Logo, the iron-shod wooden wheels sending up gouts of water on either side of the chariot, drenching Sétanta, who balanced easily on the interwoven strips of rawhide which made up the springy strap work floor.

“Hold on,” shouted Laeg, the cold wind whipping his long hair back as he urged the ponies on and over the first of the horizontal logs which made up the corrugated trackway of oaken beams laid over the boggy ground stretching before them. Cú Chulainn grunted and allowed his knees to bend slightly to counteract the jolting although the rawhide straps supporting the body of the chariot provided a rough suspension.

The watcher on the highest platform behind the palisade blew a long, wavering note on the horn to signify the arrival of armed strangers.  The palisade, Cú Chulainn noted, had been reinforced with outward pointing, sharpened stakes and a crude watchtower had been erected atop the wall beside the gate and he could see the hulking figure of Scibar pushing shut the entry gate to the triple walls closing off the ráth on the promontory. 

“It doesn’t look like they want to see you,” Laeg commented drily, swinging the chariot around so that its left side challenged the watchers on the wall.

Cú Chulainn made no answer but climbed nimbly onto the rim of the chariot and leapt on to the chariot pole and ran its length until he stood astride the yoke as Laeg thundered past, the clods of earth thrown up by the sickle wheeled chariot hammering the walls.  Twisting in the air, Cú Chulainn leapt like a salmon at the first wall, hauling himself up and over in one fluid movement and landed lightly on his feet, his sling shot already sending whirling death to Ecet, Emer’s brother, who was crouched beside an unyoked chariot, feinting with short spear thrusts. Cú Chulainn dropped his slingshot and grabbed his fallen spear and charged the still open gate in the second wall, panicking Connad by his sudden attack.

Connad lunged his spear towards Cú Chulainn’s groin but he swept the point away and down with the butt of his spear before raising it and ramming the iron-tipped point into the man’s unprotected gullet and bounding past him. Sweeping more men aside, he flailed the spear like a staff before him, keeping his movements quick and sharp, blocking thrusts and stabs and immediately attacking faces, throats and groins before moving on towards the final, inner wall. Running forward swiftly, Cú Chulainn reversed the spear in his hand and thrust the pole end into the dirt before the wall and completed a salmon leap so that he was inside the court.

Scibar was waiting there for him, a long iron sword in his hand.  “So the beardless pup is here again,” he bellowed, charging at him, sword extended and Cú Chulainn spun on the balls of his feet to ward off the attack of the overhead swing. Stamping forward, he slashed his blade at Scibar’s ankle before wrenching the keen-edged blade up between his open legs. Scibar staggeredd back, ashen faced, as blood poured from under his tunic, pooling on the ground at his feet. Snarling, he lurched forward, swinging his sword up so that the point flicked towards Cú Chulainn’s throat.  Cú Chulainn swayed to one side, avoiding the cut and moved forward, inside Scibar’s range and thrust his own blade forward into Scibar’s throat. Scibar let his sword fall with a clang from his powerless hand and his breath bubbled wetly in his throat. Cú Chulainn twisted the sword, using both hands before wrenching the iron blade out from his throat so that the blood ran down the grooved blade, streaming over his hands.

Forgall, seeing his sons fallen and his fort taken, scurried around to the back of the ráth, and scrambled up a ladder leaning against the inside wall onto the parapet overlooking the grey sea at the side of the promontory on which the ráth was built, hampered by the heavy sacks of valuables he was lugging over his shoulder. 

Cú Chulainn stopped and looked at the older man, noting the trapped, desperate, look in the old man’s narrow eyes.

“Stay back,” Forgall screamed, waving a short bladed knife in Cú Chulainn’s direction.

“I offer you safe passage in return for the hand of your daughter,” Cú Chulainn cried, thrusting his bloody sword point down into the ground at his feet. 

Forgall turned back to glare at the still warrior,  “Bad cess and short life to you. Never will I surrender my daughter or my gold to your blood-stained hands,” he screamed. The old man scrambled away along the parapet but the weight of the sacks he was carrying caused him to slip and fall to his death on the salt-washed rocks below. 

Cú Chulainn spat after him, plucked his sword from the ground and went to look for Emer in a small area off the main hall.

Retrieving the two sacks of gold and silver Forgall had dropped and putting one bag under each of his oxters and tossing Emer over his shoulder, he leapt the walls again to where Laeg was waiting for him.  Forgall’s men, enraged at the death of their ring-giver and liege lord, pursued them until they reached the ford on the river Ailbine, and Cú Chulainn killed a score of them there. 

Again, they were overtaken at another ford on the Boann, and Cú Chulainn pushed Emer down from the chariot, so that he could more easily follow his enemies along the bank of the river. 

At each of these fords Cú Chulainn killed a score of men, and so he kept his word to Emer, and they came safely to Eamhain Macha, toward the fall of night.

The Champion’s Portion 10

Chapter Ten

Samhain was the start of the Celtic year and a time for sacrifices and community gatherings. The portals between life and that of the world of the Tuatha de Danamm were more apparent at the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year and a time when wondrous events could be expected. 

Cú Chulainn had left Eamhain Macha for his own lands and dun at Dun Delga and Conall had gone to Dal Riata to collect his due.

The hunchback, Scél was in the act of closing the outer gates when they were rudely thrust open and a massive churl shouldered his way in past him and made for the hall of the Craobh Ruadh where Conor and his nobles ate and drank. A rank stench rose from his rough hide mantle filled the hall as the churl entered, his yellow eyes flicking around the benches.  In one hand, his thick fingers clutched an axe, the dully-gleaming iron head of which would have weighed that of a bull, its edge honed so that it caught the light.  In the other he carried a splintered chopping block. His stained tunic barely covered his rump and his naked legs were thick as oak stumps.

Without a word the brute stamped his way down the hall and came to a halt, slouched against one of the fork beams near the central hearth.

‘Come stranger, sit at our table for we would liefer hear tales of strangeness which, I warrant, you could tell.’

The churl grunted but did not move from where he leant against the pillar.

‘Far have I travelled on my quest, through Alba and Britannia, even to Gaul, Greece and Scythia and nowhere have I found a man to do me fair play.  But you, men of the Ulaidh, warriors of the Craobh Ruadh, such is your strength and valour, dignity and generosity bruited abroad that I have come here in expectation of my boon.’

‘Tell us that what you seek,’ asked Conor, leaning forward the better to look at the churl.

‘If you guarantee fair play?’

‘There is no man here,’ Sencha intervened, ‘who would rather not die than to break his sworn word.  In this great hall of the Craobh Ruadh, surely you will find many here who are worthy of you, with the exception of Conor on account of his crown and Fergus mac Rioch for the same privilege.’

‘Come then,’ the churl boomed, straightening up, ‘this is what I crave, Come who ever you are, so that, with this axe, I first may sever your head tonight and he mine tomorrow.’

Laoghaire laughed nervously, ‘The other way around, surely you mean?  You to suffer the beheading here now but tomorrow there can be none of that nonsense.

‘If that were my quest, it would have been easily found,’ the churl replied.  ‘But by my troth, then I will honour your request provided that you honour me so on the morrow.’

Laoghaire stood up and took the axe from the churl’s grasp. The brute laid the block on the floor in front of the high table and knelt, stretching his bare neck out on the stained block.

Laoghaire paused and spat on his hands before grasping the axe again.  Taking a deep breath, he raised the axe above his head, the weight making his arms tremble with the strain before smashing the finely honed edge on the churl’s neck.  The head sprang from the trunk as a thick gout of blood poured onto the strewn rushes of the flagged hall.

Scarcely had Laoghaire wrenched the axe free from where it was embedded in the wood of the chopping block when a gasp from the high table made him look over his shoulder as the headless trunk quivered and ponderously pushed itself up onto its knees, its muscular arms sightlessly groping for its head. Having found it and clasping the axe and block to his bloodied chest, the churl moved jerkily down the hall, filling all those who saw the spectacle with awe at the marvel that had witnessed.

‘If that púca, having been lopped tonight, comes back tomorrow, not a man alive will be left among us,’ Bricriu declared.

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The following night, however, the churl returned but Laoghaire was nowhere to be seen. 

‘Where is Laoghaire the Triumphant?  Surely it is not right that he should break his covenant with me?’ The churl demanded looking around the great hall.  ‘Is there anyone else here who would pledge their word with me?’ He raised his great axe above his head and shook it threateningly.

Conall who was sitting there with the other nobles made not a stir out of him and the churl spat noisily on the floor and left after shouting out that he would return the following night for the last time to meet any new challengers.

The next night the churl returned, fierce in aspect and furious in manner and continued to rebuke the nobles of the Craobh Ruadh.  The great hall was crowded that evening as everyone craned forward to get a glimpse of the strange marvel.

‘I now know that the men of the Craobh Ruadh, the warriors of Eamhain Macha, the fighting men of the Ulaidh have lost their valour and their prowess is no more.  It has been widely bruited abroad that ye covet the CP yet have you no man that can contest it.  Where is the pup you call the “Hound” I would fain know if his word be better than the bond of others.’

‘I have no lust for adventure and nor do I need a churl such as you to validate my word.’

‘Likely so,’ the churl sneered, ‘as you fear to die like all the others.’

Cú Chulainn sprang up, his face flushed with anger and snatched the axe from the curl’s hand.  Not waiting for the block to be placed on the floor, Cú Chulainn twirled on his heel and leaping in the air, he swung the axe with the full force of his body behind it so that the head crashed against the panel separating the high table from the rest of the hall.  Not content with that, Cú Chulainn scooped up the dripping head on the flat of the axe blade and tossed it in the air before swinging the axe like a hurley, sending the head crashing among the top rafters of the Craobh Ruadh.

The headless body again struggled to its feet, picking up the axe and block and then stumbled down the hall in search of its head.

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Samhain was the start of the Celtic year and a time for sacrifices and community gatherings. The portals between life and that of the world of the Tuatha de Danamm were more apparent at the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year and a time when wondrous events could be expected. 

Cú Chulainn had left Eamhain Macha for his own lands and dun at Dun Delga and Conall had gone to Dal Riata to collect his due.

The hunchback, Scél was in the act of closing the outer gates when they were rudely thrust open and a massive churl shouldered his way in past him and made for the hall of the Craobh Ruadh where Conor and his nobles ate and drank. A rank stench rose from his rough hide mantle filled the hall as the churl entered, his yellow eyes flicking around the benches.  In one hand, his thick fingers clutched an axe, the dully-gleaming iron head of which would have weighed that of a bull, its edge honed so that it caught the light.  In the other he carried a stained and splintered chopping block.

His stained tunic barely covered his rump and his naked legs were thick as oak stumps.

Without a word the brute stamped his way down the hall and came to a halt, slouched against one of the fork beams near the central hearth.

‘Come stranger, sit at our table for we would liefer hear tales of strangeness which, I warrant, you could tell.’

The churl grunted but did not move from where he leant against the pillar.

‘Far have I travelled on my quest, through Alba and Britannia, even to Gaul, Greece and Scythia and nowhere have I found a man to do me fair play.  But you, men of the Ulaidh, warriors of the Craobh Ruadh, such is your strength and valour, dignity and generosity bruited abroad that I have come here in expectation of my boon.’

‘Tell us that what you seek,’ asked Conor, leaning forward the better to look at the churl.

‘If you guarantee fair play?’

‘There is no man here,’ Sencha intervened, ‘who would rather not die than to break his sworn word.  In this great hall of the Craobh Ruadh, surely you will find many here who are worthy of you, with the exception of Conor on account of his crown and Fergus mac Rioch for the same privilege.’

‘Come then,’ the churl boomed, straightening up, ‘this is what I crave, Come who ever you are, so that, with this axe, I first may sever his head tonight and he mine tomorrow.’

Laoghaire laughed nervously, ‘the other way around, surely you mean.  You to suffer the beheading tonight for you need not about retribution the following day if you behead your adversary now.’

‘If that were my quest, it would have been easily found,’ the churl replied.  ‘But by my troth, then I will honour your request provided that you honour me so on the morrow.’

Laoghaire stood up and took the axe from the churl’s grasp. The brute laid the block on the floor in front of the high table and knelt, stretching his bare neck out on the stained block.

Laoghaire paused and spat on his hands before grasping the axe again.  Taking a deep breath, he raised the axe above his head, the weight making his arms tremble with the strain before smashing the finely honed edge on the churl’s neck.  The head sprang from the trunk as a thick gout of blood poured onto the strewn rushes of the flagged hall.

Scarcely had Laoghaire wrenched the axe free from where it was embedded in the wood of the chopping block when a gasp from the high table made him look over his shoulder as the headless trunk quivered and ponderously pushed itself up onto its knees, its muscular arms sightlessly groping for its head. Having found it and clasping the axe and block to his bloodied chest, the churl moved jerkily down the hall, filling all those who saw the spectacle with awe at the marvel that had witnessed.

‘If that púca, having been lopped tonight, comes back tomorrow, not a man alive will be left among us,’ Bricriu declared.

The following night, however, the churl returned but Laoghaire was nowhere to be seen. 

‘Where is Laoghaire the Triumphant?  Surely it is not right that he should break his covenant with me?’ The churl demanded looking around the great hall.  ‘Is there anyone else here who would pledge their word with me?’ He raised his great axe above his head and shook it threateningly.

Conall who was sitting there with the other nobles made not a stir out of him and the churl spat noisily on the floor and left after shouting out that he would return the following night for the last time to meet any new challengers.

The next night the churl returned, fierce in aspect and furious in manner and continued to rebuke the nobles of the Craobh Ruadh.  The great hall was crowded that evening as everyone craned forward to get a glimpse of the strange marvel.

‘I now know that the men of the Craobh Ruadh, the warriors of Eamhain Macha, the fighting men of the Ulaidh have lost their valour and their prowess is no more.  It has been widely bruited abroad that ye covet the CP yet have you no man that can contest it.  Where is the pup you call the “Hound” I would fain know if his word be better than the bond of others.’

‘I have no lust for adventure and nor do I need a churl such as you to validate my word.’

‘Likely so,’ the churl sneered, ‘as you fear to die like all the others.’

Cú Chulainn sprang up, his face flushed with anger and snatched the axe from the curl’s hand.  Not waiting for the block to be placed on the floor, Cú Chulainn twirled on his heel and leaping in the air, he swung the axe with the full force of his body behind it so that the head crashed against the panel separating the high table from the rest of the hall.  Not content with that, Cú Chulainn scooped up the dripping head on the flat of the axe blade and tossed it in the air before swinging the axe like a hurley, sending the head crashing among the top rafters of the Craobh Ruadh.

The headless body again struggled to its feet, picking up the axe and block and then stumbled down the hall in search of its head.

The following night, the hall was crowded to see if Cú Chulainn would avoid his appointment with the mysterious churl as the other heroes had done.  Conor sat by his side while Fergus busied himself with pouring strong drink for himself and his foster son.

Cú Chulainn sat, sunk in silence, his chin resting upon his chest and Conor knew the youth was scared.  Indeed a gloom had settled on the hall and no amount of candlelight could dispel the darkness that would attend on them when the churl returned.

Cú Chulainn looked up at Fergus and his king.  ‘Stay with me here, I beg you, until my pledge is fulfilled.  I fear death is nigh but I would fain die with honour and not defame the ancient prophesies.’

The door to the hall was suddenly thrown open with a crash and the churl strode in, angrily glaring around him.

‘Where is the pup, Cú Chulainn?’ He demanded.

Cú Chulainn stood up and jumped down from the dais to meet his nemesis.

‘Here, I am here,’ he said shortly.

‘Not so chatty, now, I perceive,’ chuckled the churl, slowly grinding a sharpening stone along the already keen edge of his axe.

‘You are a bit lifeless compared to the previous time we met and yet,’ he paused and the nobles in the hall shrank back from the grinding sound of the whet stone on the iron blade, ‘it is more lifeless I will leave you when I depart. Stretch your neck out now, boaster,’ the churl demanded, testing the edge of his blade with a horny thumb.

Cú Chulainn knelt down and laid his head in the depression in the reeking block.

‘A bit more, stretch out your neck more so that I can see it,’ the churl demanded as he laid the sharp edge on Cú Chulainn’s neck, preparatory to raising the weapon above his head.

‘Don’t jeer at me so,’ Cú Chulainn cried, ‘finish me off if that is what you mean to do but do not delay.’

‘I can’t,’ said the churl ‘for your neck is so small and the depression in the block so deep that the axe cannot reach it properly, stretch your neck out more so that I can see it.’

Cú Chulainn took a deep breath and pushed and strained against the block so that a child’s fist could be inserted between each of his ribs. Again the churl raised the axe above his head and waited a moment before sweeping the blunt side down and touching Cú Chulainn gently with it.

‘Arise Cú Chulainn, most noble and valourous of all men for you alone braved the head test and for that alone I accord you the champion of all the Ulaidh warriors, the CP to be your just reward, disputed by none and that the Lady Emer should take precedence above all the ladies of the court always. And I swear now before you all on the name of the ancient Gods that whoever moves against you in these things, his life will be forfeited accordingly.’

The churl had vanished and in its place stood the mighty Cu Roi mac Dairi who vanished as soon as the nobles had caught sight of him.

The following night, the hall was crowded to see if Cú Chulainn would avoid his appointment with the mysterious churl as the other heroes had done.  Conor sat by his side while Fergus busied himself with pouring strong drink for himself and his foster son.

Cú Chulainn sat, sunk in silence, his chin resting upon his chest and Conor knew the youth was scared.  Indeed a gloom had settled on the hall and no amount of candlelight could dispel the darkness that would attend on them when the churl returned.

Cú Chulainn looked up at Fergus and his king.  ‘Stay with me here, I beg you, until my pledge is fulfilled.  I fear death is nigh but I would fain die with honour and not defame the ancient prophesies.’

The door to the hall was suddenly thrown open with a crash and the churl strode in, angrily glaring around him.

‘Where is the pup, Cú Chulainn?’ He demanded.

Cú Chulainn stood up and jumped down from the dais to meet his nemesis.

‘Here, I am here,’ he said shortly.

‘Not so chatty, now, I perceive,’ chuckled the churl, slowly grinding a sharpening stone along the already keen edge of his axe.

‘You are a bit lifeless compared to the previous time we met and yet,’ he paused and the nobles in the hall shrank back from the grinding sound of the whet stone on the iron blade, ‘it is more lifeless I will leave you when I depart. Stretch your neck out now, boaster,’ the churl demanded, testing the edge of his blade with a horny thumb.

Cú Chulainn knelt down and laid his head in the depression in the reeking block.

‘A bit more, stretch out your neck more so that I can see it,’ the churl demanded as he laid the sharp edge on Cú Chulainn’s neck, preparatory to raising the weapon above his head.

‘Don’t jeer at me so,’ Cú Chulainn cried, ‘finish me off if that is what you mean to do but do not delay.’

‘I can’t,’ said the churl ‘for your neck is so small and the depression in the block so deep that the axe cannot reach it properly, stretch your neck out more so that I can see it.’

Cú Chulainn took a deep breath and pushed and strained against the block so that a child’s fist could be inserted between each of his ribs. Again the churl raised the axe above his head and waited a moment before sweeping the blunt side down and touching Cú Chulainn gently with it.

‘Arise Cú Chulainn, most noble and valourous of all men for you alone braved the head test and for that alone I accord you the champion of all the Ulaidh warriors, the CP to be your just reward, disputed by none and that the Lady Emer should take precedence above all the ladies of the court always. And I swear now before you all on the name of the ancient Gods that whoever moves against you in these things, his life will be forfeited accordingly.’

The churl had vanished and in its place stood the mighty Cu Roi mac Dairi who vanished as soon as the nobles had caught sight of him.

The Champion’s Portion – 9

The penultimate chapter – 9

Their charioteers had the horses already yoked and the heroes left immediately and arrived at Eamhain Macha at the end of long days of hard travel. No one there dared ask news of their visit to Crúachan and to Cu Roi in Da Mhuntainn until food and drink had been served in the great hall of the Craobh Ruadh but still the three champions said not a word.  Sualtáim, Cú Chulainn’s father, fearing that things were wrong, gestured at the slaves to ensure the men’s cups were filled and to withhold the champion’s portion from presentation.

All would have gone well but for Bricriu, who sensed that things were not right and he loudly demanded that the champion’s portion be served.

‘We should present the Champion’s portion to someone other than these three fine heroes for they bring no sign from either Connachta or from Cu Roi in Da Mhuntainn as to who the champion’s portion should be assigned to.’

The taunting was too much for Laoghaire to bear, he jumped to his feet and brandished the bronze cup that Medb had given him.

‘See here,’ he exclaimed, ‘is this not such a token as you wanted, given to me by Queen Medb’s fair hand.  I claim the champion’s portion by right of this precious cup and none may contest it with me.’

‘Not so,’ growled Conall Cernach, heaving himself to his feet. ‘ From the difference between your bronze cup and this one that I hold here’ – and he held aloft his drinking horn so that the firelight and the candles were reflected back from the brightly polished argent with the gold outline of the bird delicately chased around its width – ‘given to me by the same fair hands, I claim the champion’s portion.’

Cú Chulainn laughed and stood up from the bench.

‘You are both wrong.  Anything that you were given at the hands of that woman serves only to intensify our strife, presenting each of us with what they thought we were worth.  But to me,’ he continued, ‘both King Ailil and his consort gave me this, distinguished above all the rest,’ and with that, he raised the red gold horn so that the dragon stone and other precious stones flashed and glittered in the light.

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Conor and Fergus rose to their feet in the sudden silence and looked down from the high table.

‘There is no doubt as to who the champion’s portion must be awarded to,’ Fergus began only to be loudly challenged by an enraged Laoghaire and Conall.

‘I swear by the ancient gods of our people,’ Laoghaire spat out, ‘that such a cup was bought, not by blood but by costly skins and furs and by the gold amassed from Forgall the Cunning and given to those at Crúachan.’

‘You couldn’t bear to have a defeat marked up against you, could you?’ Jeered Conall?  ‘You had to have the champion’s portion as well, didn’t you?  Well, you will have to go through me to lay your hands on it for the Champion’s portion will not be yours.’

Conall vaulted the trestle table, his sword already drawn as Laoghaire moved around to Cú Chulainn’s flank.

Conor struck the silver balls hanging from the golden shaft above his chair and commanded the men to put up their weapons.

In the silence that followed, Sencha spoke up.

‘As you know the time of Samhain fast approaches.  I tell you now that astonishing events will occur at that time all issues shall be resolved for those who are present over the féis.’

The Champion’s Portion 7

Chapter 7

Ailil reeled back against the wall and clapped a hand to his forehead as soon as the three heroes had left. ‘I can’t stand this,’ he complained, going over to where Medb was sitting, playing with a small squirrel. ‘No matter what I do or say, I am wrong and it seems foolish to court the anger of men such as these.  It’s a poisoned cup Conor has offered me, I can tell you that much.’

‘Coward’! Medb laughed.  ‘Look, if you can’t decide, I’ll do it for you, for nothing would appear simpler. And what’s more, it will get those three oafs out of our hair and you will manage to keep your name as an impartial judge too.’

‘No matter what you do, Medb,’ Ailil said, ‘misfortune will follow upon any decision.’

‘Leave it to me,’ Medb smiled, ‘for it is obvious that Laoghaire is as different to Conall as bronze is to argent and Conall and Cú Chulainn are as different as argent is to gold.’

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Laoghaire was both surprised and flattered when a messenger summoned him to a private meeting with Ailil and Medb. ‘Welcome, Laoghaire the Triumphant,’ Medb called out, advancing down the aisle towards him, her arms held out in greeting. Taking him by the arm she led him to a recess off the main hall and offered him rich wines. 

‘It is our decision that you alone deserve the Champion’s portion, brave Laoghaire.  Not only that, we feel you should be set above all the other heroes of Eamhain Macha, and to seal our approval, here is a cup fashioned for a champion.’  

Medb gestured impatiently with her hand and a serving girl appeared, bearing a carved drinking horn capped and mounted in polished bronze, an exotic bird outlined in argent twining round from the base to the lip.

‘Keep this, Laoghaire, away from envious eyes until you have come to Conor and the Craobh Ruadh.  When the Champion’s portion is brought out, you then produce your cup as token of your position before all the nobles of the Craobh Ruadh.’

Medb gestured again and the girl filled the horn to the brim with the dark, rich wine.

Laoghaire drank it back in one draught, well pleased with himself and the token of his supremacy.

‘Now,’ Medb continued, ‘you have the look of a champion.  Go now and revel in that position as the champion of the Ulaidh.’

As soon as Laoghaire had left, Medb arranged a similar performance for Conall but this time, the drinking horn was trimmed with argent itself while the bird encircling the vessel was chased in gold. Delighted with the way her plan was working out, Medb summoned Cú Chulainn but her messenger was insulted and kicked away by Cú Chulainn who claimed he had no time for that kind of nonsense.

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Infuriated by this behaviour, Medb decided she herself would go to entreat her uncouth guest.  Slipping her long, slender white arms around his neck she murmured the promise of what she could offer.

‘You can tell your lies and show your arse to someone else for all I care,’ Cú Chulainn growled, twisting loose from her grasp.

‘Most comely of all champions, it is no lie I tell you when you are the subject.  Were the world’s heroes to approach us, we would only choose you for the Champion’s portion for you surpass all in fame, bravery and valour so that the men of the Ulaidh recognise in you a champion of distinction, youth and glory.’

Unable to resist Medb’s seductive charms, Cú Chulainn allowed himself to be led away to where Medb presented him with a drinking horn capped and mounted in red gold with the outline of the bird mosaicked in precious stones.  Filling the horn with the dark rich wine, Medb handed him alone a knob, as big as his two eyes, of deep red dragon-stone, saying, 

‘Now know that you alone deserve the feast of a champion and not only that, I truly believe that just as it is impossible to compare you with the rank and file of the Ulaidh, so it is impossible to compare the lady Emer with the women of other men.  There is no doubt that she should always enter the hall before any other woman should approach.’

Cú Chulainn laughed and, with one gulp, drained the drinking horn, turned on his heel and left.

The Champion’s Portion 5

Chapter Five

‘Did you see that?’ Medb, wife of Ailil, king of Connachta, demanded, as the weapons hanging on the wall shifted imperceptibly as if the wall was vibrating.

She stood up, alarmed now at the noise of thunder despite the fact that the sky was clear.

‘Quick, Findabair, go up to your tower and tell me what you can see.’

Findabair, Medb’s daughter scampered up the steps and peered out over the plain before Crúachan.

‘There are chariots tearing along towards us. Two dappled greys are pulling the first polished wicker chariot with large black wheels, its yoke silver mounted.  The warrior has long, curling, fair hair and a forked beard.  A short red cloak, gold striped, billows from his shoulders.  He holds a bronze shield and a five-pronged javelin and there are feathers in his cap.’

‘If he’s coming in anger we are doomed,’ Medb cried, ‘for that sounds like Laoghaire of the red hands.  He will slice us down like you slice a leek at its base unless we make every effort to appease him.  Who else do you see?’

‘A roan and a bay pull another finely carved wicker and wooden chariot.  Like the other, the yoke is silver mounted but the wheels are bound in bronze.  The warrior has wavy brown hair and his cloak is of blue and red, a heavy wooden shield with bronze bosses, and a mighty spear are in his hand.’

‘That must be Conall and as easily as you cut a fish with a sharp knife, will he disembowel each and every one of us that he finds here if we don’t mollify him.  Is there anyone else?’

‘Two stallions, a grey and a black, pull a chariot with iron bound, yellow wheels. The yoke is silver with bronze mountings.  The warrior is a small, dark man, eyebrows black as soot but his teeth gleam like pearls. A crimson shield hangs from his shoulders and he grips a long iron sword. Javelins and spears jut from the high sides of his chariot.’

‘Those other two are the drops before the shower, for that can only be Cú Chulainn,’ Medb said.  ‘Like a ten spoked mill grinds very fine, so too shall we be if we do not accord with his demands.    Make preparations and prepare to receive these mighty warriors of the Ulaidh and let us hope that they come in peace.  Send out a troop of slave girls, comely in looks, full breasted and bare to the waist, along with their brats as well and get ready to serve strong drink.’

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Medb and Ailil waited on the dais in the central room of the great hall at Crúachan for the arrival of the heroes and warriors, for close behind Cú Chulainn, Conall and Laoghaire had arrived a cohort from Eamhain Macha, led by Conor, Fergus and Sencha, Ailil’s own son.

The bench on which they sat had silver designs chased on its front, framed in bronze and looked down on the main hearth but was screened off from the main section of the hall by a partition of red yew with carved bronze facings to waist height.

Overhead, triple bands of polished bronze, running through the roof beams of oak, caught the light from the hearth and reflected it back down on the royal couple so that they appeared bathed in its warm hue.

As musicians played, the might of the Ulaidh strode into the hall at the far end to where Ailil and Medb sat. A great feast for the noble visitors was proclaimed and at the end of three days of feasting and drinking, Ailil finally ventured to enquire as to the nature of their visit.

‘It’s like this,’ said Conor, leaning forward confidentially, ‘That bollix Bricriu, you know who I mean, the one over there with the long puss on him, well, you know he loves to stir up a bit enmity, just for the sake of it, curse him.’ 

‘I know what you mean,’ Ailil nodded, ‘we have a few like that the same.’

‘Anyway, didn’t the eejit promise the champion’s portion to each of my three lads and now, of course, they are bickering and quarrelling among themselves.’

‘And as if that is not bad enough,’ Fergus added, ‘their women are now involved, the bitches fighting over who has precedence over who at the feasts, if you don’t mind!’

Ailil remained silent for a moment before looking at Conor.

‘And why have you come here to me, then?’ He said quietly.

‘Well, we thought that with the three heroes’ rivalry for the champion’s portion and the ladies rivalry for precedence within Eamhain Macha, we thought you might be the best impartial judge of the matter.’

‘But what has it got to do with Ailil and Connachta?’ Medb demanded.  ‘Why should we earn the enmity of your champions by raising one above all?’

Sencha turned towards his father.

‘You really would be the best judge for all know of your moderation and we need to resolve this issue because the boy troop in the Craobh Ruadh need a model to aspire to.’

‘Well,’ his father considered, ‘I’ll have to think about it for it is not a task lightly undertaken.  I’ll need at least three nights and that’s the best I can do.’

Conor leaned forward and grasped Ailil by the forearm.  ‘This will be a seal of our friendship if you do this thing for us,’ he said quietly.

Standing up, the nobles thanked Ailil and Medb, cursed Bricriu for he had caused the quarrels between the heroes and their women and commended their champions into the hands of a rival king.

The Champion’s Portion 3

Chapter Three

Bricriu cursed as he crept back from the edge of the loft from where he had been looking down at the tumult the demand for the Champion’s portion had caused.  The feasting had resumed and the men had made a circle around the fire and strong drink continued to soothe fierce spirits.

‘Bad cess to the lot of them, he swore, if they think that that was the best of my needles between their ribs.  If I can’t get the men to fight, perchance I may fare better with the ladies coming to blows for, as fierce as their men are, the women are as lusty and as savage as their men.’

Just then, he caught sight of Fedelma returning from the privy and he moved quickly to intercept her.

‘All good things be with you, Fedelma of the Bright Heart, wife of Laoghaire.  Truly I see that your name does you justice for your fresh heart can be seen in your open face and fine form.  I would be honoured if you, Fedelma, consort of Laoghaire the Triumphant first enter the hall leading the ladies at your heel when you to join the men. First among all women you shall be on entering so from here on’. Bricriu moved on, leaving the girl staring after him.

Lendabair, daughter of Eoghean mac Durthtacht, wife of Conall Cernach of the Victories was next and Bricriu determined to lay it on thick for Lendabair was already vain of her own standing among the women, having only recently become Conall’s woman.

‘Greeting Lendabair, most favoured of all women for your beauty and attributes. Just as your man, Conall is head and shoulders above all other men, so too are you above all other women of the kingdom and you would do me great honour if you were to lead the ladies of the Ulaidh into the hall later tonight.’

Emer was surprised to find Bricriu standing beside her.

‘Fair Emer, daughter of the shrewd Forgall, wife of the champion foretold in the ancient prophecies, whose name will live on in songs and of praise signifying great acts, you outshine the very stars we look upon this evening.  It is no surprise that might lords and kings, Lugaid and Erc among them, have contested for your hand.  Just as the sun outshines the very stars we see, so too does your beauty outshine all the women of the world for none can compare with your elegance and lustre, your proud name and sagacity.’

At first the ladies, mindful of Bricriu’s words but unaware that he had suggested the same thing to each of them, moved slowly towards the porch of the granian, each keeping a causal eye on the others’ level progress. But as they neared the door way, their steps became shorter but quicker and their elbows raised, they scrambled forward, keeping up with each other only by hoisting their skirts above their thighs in an effort to barge ahead and so be first into the hall where the men were, intent on being foremost to enter and thus be acknowledged as the first lady of the kingdom.

The noise of their bustle, all elegance and grace cast aside in their haste to be the first to enter the hall, was as if a herd of giant elk were crashing through the forest. The warriors within, alarmed at the noise, rose to their feet and sought their weapons.

‘Stand down,’ roared Conor, ‘it is not enemies we need fear here but our very own women, incensed, no doubt, by the poisoned tongue of our host. For the sake of our own lives, shut the door and bar entry to the women if it is peace that we want.’

Even as Scél, the doorkeeper, moved to slam the door shut, Emer, a neck ahead of the other women, slammed her back against the door, just as it was fully closed by the homunculus. 

Calling out to Cú Chulainn, she was quickly joined by Lendabair and Fedelma who joined in their cries for their men to open the doors for them.

‘We’re banjaxed now,’ Fergus said to Conor, as he rose up to strike the silver bell suspended above his seat.

‘Ladies,’ Conor began, ‘you are most welcome but here we are not looking for a bloody strife but if it is a fight you want, then let it be with fair words.’

Soon there was a buzzing in the hall as if a giant hive or bees had been disturbed with each woman praising her own man and by reflection herself so that the men became uneasy and were ready to quarrel amongst themselves.

Fedelma claimed royal privilege, being daughter to Conor, as well as beauty being her key features.  Added to that, her man is Laoghaire, whose red hand has defended the borders of the Ulaidh from all enemies.

Lendabair countered with her beauty and the valour of her man, Conall, who is undefeated in battle and has ceaselessly defended the fords and passes of the kingdom  no-one can doubt his courage or his deeds and so, she should be paramount, of all the ladies, in the Ulaidh.

Emer rebutted the two by claiming that she is the fairest of all and that, if she wished it so, no other woman could retain her man if she set her eyes upon him. Added to that is the fact that her man is Cú Chulainn, and as the prophecies have made clear, his is the name that will endure while stories about him will last until the end of generations.  Let any one who doubt it prove it so by showing the strength of their love now for their woman, formerly barred from the feasting hall.

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Immediately both Laoghaire and Conall were up on their hind legs, looking around desperately for some way to show their strength of their love for their women. Laoghaire punched his way through the stout timbers of the wall to the side of the hall to create a doorway while Conall kicked a hole in the wall so hard that the roof beams overhead shook with the fierce impact and a fine dust drifted down upon their heads.

Cú Chulainn smiled lazily and without bothering to rise to his feet he stretched out his arm and dug his fingers into the packed floor of the hall and with a massive heave, wrenched the whole wall up to a height where the others at his bench could see the night stars glittering outside in the dark sky.

Slamming the wall down violently so that it sank into the earth a knees length, the loft where Bricriu had been gloating over the success of his plan, tilted and collapsed, sending Bricriu rolling in the midden, among the dogs outside his own hall.  Staggering to his feet, he stared uncomprehendingly at the lop-sided aspect his hall had now assumed, its wall breached in two places, lath and wattle bent and twisted, its oaken beams fractured and cracked.

Furious, he demanded entry and angrily remonstrated with the warriors of Eamhain Macha.

‘Lookit here to me,’ he roared, ‘I prepared a feast for you in good faith and this is how you repay my generosity – you wreck my new hall in wanton acts of destruction to impress your women. But I am not impressed and I lay a geas on all here to restore my hall to the way it was on your arrival before you can be further refreshed with food and drink.’

Shamefaced the men stood and together they began to effect repairs, straightening the pillars and repairing the daub and wattle on the walls but try as they might they could not tug the sunken wall out of the clinging earth so that even a blade of straw could pass between the wall and the ground.

‘No point beating your own back with someone else’s rod,’ remarked Sencha, ‘Ask the one who did the damage to repair it.  After all, none of us can eat or drink or sleep until the damage is repaired.’

Cú Chulainn stood up and stretched languidly before grinning at the others.  He sauntered over to where he had slammed the wall down and crouched, slipping both hands into the dirt, scrabbling to get a purchase of the wall with his fingertips. His muscles bunching on his back, he heaved and tugged but was unable to budge it.

Again he tried with no result until Laeg edged closer and whispered is this the famous hero songs will be sung about hereafter. Your strength must have gone if a little thing like a simple wall can defeat you.  If this is the best you can do, then I should be looking for another hero who has need of my chariot skills.

Grunting, Cú Chulainn spat on his hands and felt his battle wrath surge within his blood.

His body tensed and stretched, his joints unlocking and stretching so that a clenched fist could be placed between each pair of ribs.  His eyes started from their sockets and the veins in his face and neck stood out pulsing visibly as face contorted into an animal snarl of rage, his hair bristling on his scalp, each lock standing erect and, in the light of the central hearth, tinged with fire.

Assumed gigantic stature, he wrenched the whole side of the building up with a forceful tug and laid it carefully and gently down on the ground, smoothed by the stamp of his heavy foot.

The geas removed by their actions the warriors gathered around the central hearth and made way for the women who continued to laud their men until exasperated, Conor demanded a halt. 

‘Your words cut deeper than the sharpest weapon. Do you want to drive the pride of Eamhain Macha into the pride of battle for the vanity of women?  For you alone, of all beings, bring men to do things that would otherwise be left undone’.  

Despite Conor’s words, which only quietened the assembly for a short space of time, the hall soon became a babble of voices as Mugain, Conor’s wife, attempted to reassert control over the ladies but Emer’s voice continued to ring out.

‘If you think it shameful for a woman to praise her man, then it is truly wanton I am for I believe that there is no other man among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh that can match Cú Chulainn in mind or body, his splendour and grace, his fury and valour in the battleline and it is my duty to proclaim so before all other men and women.’

‘No doubt, my lady you mean well,’ Conall rose to his feet and looked along the bench to where Emer sat beside her man, one slim hand resting on his knee, ‘but if what you say is true, let us hear it affirmed from the mouth of your champion himself so that we may contest it with him.’

‘Ahh, Conall, go on out of that with you.’ Setanta yawned and scratched his stomach. ‘Haven’t we had this feast already interrupted for no good reason and now I would fain satisfy my appetite for good food and strong drink for, in truth, I am sick and tired of this endless bickering and there nothing can be done until our good natures are restored to us by feasting with friends.’

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The Champion’s Portion 2

Chapter Two

Laoghaire Buadach, son of Connad mac Iliach was the first to arrive at Bricriu’s new feasting hall at Dun Rudraige.

‘Laoghaire, valiant warrior of the Ulaidh, the fiery thunderbolt of Midé, Welcome to my hall.  Come in and tell me why it is you have never been given the champion’s portion at Eamhain Macha?’

Laoghaire glared at Bricriu before grunting and looking down at his muddy sandals.  ‘Ahh sure, I suppose I could get it any time I want, for there are few warriors of my stature at any table.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t care to be the one trying to stop you from claiming the bounty which should rightfully be yours.’ Bricriu laughed.

‘What do you mean?’ Laoghaire asked, his thin frame hunched as if to attack.

‘Sure don’t you know that the champion’s portion is an amphora of fine wine, enough for a host of champions, a boar, fine fed for seven feis, stuffed and roasted, a bull calf simmered in broth of curds, nuts and wheat since last Imbolc. Add to that five score oat cakes cooked in honey. The champion’s portion proves that you are the champion of Eamhain Macha surely and I know you are worthy of it.  If I were you, I’d just tell my charioteer to serve it to me before anyone else can get up for it.’ Bricriu explained.

‘There will be fresh hot blood if anyone tries to stop me, I tell you,’ Laoghaire scowled, his hand on the blade at his side.

Bricriu laughed and clapped him on the back.

Burly Conall Cernach was the next to arrive at the head of a troop of men in blue and red cloaks, heavy wooden shields with brass bosses and mighty spears in their hands.

‘Conall, may the track rise easy before you,’ Bricriu greeted him effusively. ‘Hero of a five score battles and combats, it is said you have been victorious more than any other man in the Ulaidh, and when you raid into the neighbouring kingdoms, you are a night’s march before the men of the Ulaidh can catch up with you. On the return, you are always in the rear, harrying the enemy.  What stops you, I’d like to know, from being given the champion’s portion of Eamhain Macha to hold forever more?’ Bricriu demanded, laying it on as twice as thickly as he had for Laoghaire. Satisfied that he had piqued Conall’s interest and pride, Bricriu waited impatiently until he could single the last of the vaunted heroes, Sétanta. So-called Hound of the North, named after, as a child, he had strangled the wolf hound of the smith, Cullain guarding the passages to the Ulaidh.

‘Welcome Sétanta, the heart of Eamhain Macha, beloved of the fairest, the ancient prophecies foretell your fame and glory and your name of the Hound is justifiably earned as the Ulaidh is well guarded by you as all men acknowledge that you surpass them all. Why then have you left the champion’s portion for other, lesser men to claim when none can contest it with you?’

‘By the blood of my father Lugh, I swear that any who contested against me would soon be a head shorter.’ Sétanta snorted.

Saying nothing further, Bricriu excused himself and left, waiting impatiently as Conor and his son, Crúscraid the stammerer, led the nobles, Fergus, the once king of the Ulaidh, Uísliu and his three sons, Sencha the draoidh, son of Ailell, King of Connachta, Amergin the poet, Dubhtacht, the beetle browed, Illand, son of Fergus and Cethirn son of Fintain among others to the long trestle table on the dais at the back end of the hall. The heroes of the Craobh Dearg took over the benches closer to the central hearth while the noble women were already in the rearmost bower outside the main hall.

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Female slaves plied the trestle tables with bowls of savoury meats, and the men helped themselves to the jugs and ewers of both wine and ale that littered the long trestles while musicians and gleemen tumbled and cavorted before the king’s raised platform.

Fergus nodded to his son, Illand and he and Cethirn quickly moved to where Bricriu was standing, over seeing the spit-roasts of boar and bull.

‘You remember the conditions?’ Cethirn said grimly, his hand on the hilt of the heavy blade hanging at his side.

Bricriu looked up from what he was doing and scowled at the warriors facing him.  

‘The feast cannot begin until you withdraw.’ Illand reminded him

Bricriu muttered something to one of the boys tending the spitted boar and then, without looking at either of the men, he turned and left the feasting area, going directly to the loft he had planned for himself. At the foot of the ladder, he turned and hailed the assembled company.

‘May you enjoy the largesse which I bestow upon you from the heart but I leave you all to give the champion’s portion to whoever you think is the foremost champion of the Ulaidh,’ he called out before ascending the ladder.

As befitted his status as king of the Ulaidh, his steward served the hind haunch of the boar to Conor and stepped back awkwardly as, at a nod from Laoghaire, Sedlang his charioteer, grasped his knife and moved to sever the remaining haunch.

‘This, the champion’s portion, I take for my master, Laoghaire the triumphant, for he of all the lords of the Craobh Ruadh deserve it so,’ he cried boldly.

Hardly had he finished speaking before both Id and Laeg, the charioteers of Conall and Sétanta, were on their feet, loudly claiming the haunch for their masters. 

‘Give it here to Cú Chulainn,’ shouted Laeg ‘for it is well known by all here that he is the most valiant and heroic among you all.’ 

‘That is not true,’ both Conall and Laoghaire shouted proudly, their voices almost drowned out by long blades rasping half out of metal-lipped sheaths, as warriors pushed back benches and surged to their feet. Both Conor was on his feet at the end of the hall livid with rage at the outbreak of hostility and vaunting pride among the noble warriors. Sétanta stood firm, his arm around the shoulders of his wiry charioteer, Laeg while Sedlang, Id, Conall and Laoghaire pushed their way forward towards the dais.

Conor’s voice rang out, clear and authoritative above the melee, ‘Part yourselves,’ he ordered.

Faced with the wrath of their king and their battle leader, the men stepped back a pace, shame-facedly. At a discrete cough from Sencha, Conor gestured at the draoidh. ‘Listen well, for Sencha will decide this contentious issue, if you do as I say.’

Mumbling, the men nodded their heads, but most eyes remained on the leg of pork remaining on the table.

‘Tonight,’ Sencha boomed, ‘we will all share in this champion’s portion so that no one of us will be deemed inferior, in place among the Craobh Ruadh or in valour and strength in the Craobh Dearg. Later, this matter can be more fully resolved through the wisdom of my father, Ailil mac Mata, king of Connachta. Until then, we eat and drink and act as the band of warriors we are, the heroes of the Ulaidh.’

The Champion’s Portion 1

Chapter One

(I made a recording of chapter 1 if you care to listen.)

Bricriu thrust open the door of the Craobh Ruadh, so violently that the fire in the central hearth belched a cloud of smoke while the candles on the long table on the dais flickered before he stamped into the hall, slamming  the door shut and glaring around from under heavy black eyebrows before seeing Conor on the dais. The Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch, was one of the three great halls within Eamhain Macha, the heart of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, and attracted the fighting men and champions who protected the northern kingdom and punished transgressors. These warriors and fighting men in turn were mentored by those former champions, heroes still, veterans like Conall, Ferdia, Fergus, Bricriu and others of their generation and older still, like Sencha the Draoidh. But now it was the time of the new generation of warriors and champions and, despite his age and seniority among the veterans of the Craobh Ruadh, Bricriu knew they called him The Bitter-tongued behind his back and refused to see him for what he believed he was.

Conor Mac Nessa, the once boy-king, looked up from the game of fiduchell he had been playing with Fergus mac Rioch and frowned. ‘Guard yourself,’ he muttered to his companion, ‘and keep a civil tongue in your head for you know full well the bile that man produces’. Fergus glanced over his shoulder and then shifted on his haunch so the his sword lay unimpeded by his side.

Conor knew the noisy arrival of Bricriu would do nothing to ease the ache he already felt in his temples and the top of his head from too much of the unwatered wine he and Fergus had been drinking but hospitality demanded guests must be allowed to eat and drink before stating their business but he guessed what Bricriu would demand.

Sétanta mac Sualtáim, or lately called Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, had recently returned from a lengthy foray into Alba and almost immediately on his return, had taken forcibly to wife, Emer, daughter of the wily Forgall Manach and there was much talk for what this would all mean, for Emer was from the southern kingdom of Laigheann.

‘An’ why wouldn’t ye have a feast for yer man?  Sure isn’t he just home here himself with his new woman and how else can we build relationships and keep our brotherhood strong?’ Bricriu demanded, knowing full well the old king’s reluctance to engage in extravagance.

‘It would not be seemly at this time,’ Conor replied.

‘Give Cú Chulainn a chance to settle down,’ Fergus chipped in.  ‘After all, it is a new experience for us as well as for the Hound.’ 

Annoyed by the old fool siding with the man who had usurped him, Bricriu was more than ever determined to go through with the plan he was beginning to hatch to sow discord among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh, especially now that Fergus continued to belittle him

‘Well, lookit here to me,’ Bricriu said slyly, ‘if you lot won’t have a feast for your man that all will remember, then I will.  I will return on the morrow and you can give me the honour of accepting an invitation to feast with me.’ He pushed his cup of wine away and stood up abruptly. ‘Until tomorrow then.’.

‘What do you think, Fergus?’ Conor asked glancing over at the older man. Fergus the Unwise they called him, and with good reason, Conor reminded himself, after he had ceded this kingdom of the Ulaidh in return for the favour of his widowed mother, Ness. That was more than three decades past and the kingdom under Conor had prospered in that time and Conor had grown used to listening to the older man’s advice.

‘I’ll tell you this much,’ Fergus sat up and spat into the fire, ‘If we go to a feast organised by that venomous tongued pot-stirrer, there will be more of us dead afterwards than there would be to begin with. Mind you,’ he said, shifting painfully on the bench, ‘if he wants to have a feast let him build his own hall in his own grounds and the expense of that might soften his cough.’

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Bricriu feigned delight when Conor agreed to his idea of a feast for Cú Chulainn and his newly claimed woman, Emer of Laigheann.

‘And yes,’ Conor continued, ‘you may organise the feast, Bricriu but you will also bear the expense not just of the food and drink but you must also provide a hall worthy of our Craobh Ruadh and our heroic warriors of the Ulaidh.’

‘Not only that,’ Fergus butted in, ‘You yourself will not be welcomed at that self same feast you organise for if you attend, I know that there will be enmity and malice aplenty.’

Sencha coughed and reminded Conor that he should insist on taking hostages and Bricriu cursed silently at the effort it caused him to hold in his rage at this treatment.

Leaving Eamhain Macha he immediately began preparation for a feasting hall to be built at his lands at Dun Rudraige.  Remembering what Conor had said about the honour of the Craobh Ruadh, he determined to surpass the wonders of that building with his own great hall fit for heroes.  The Craobh Dearg, the second of the great halls within Eamhain Macha, was just a barracks for warriors, a place to store weapons and equipment always to hand, but this, Bricriu determined, his hall would surpass all buildings for heroes in the same way that heroes surpassed all other men. He smiled suddenly, a plan formed for these prancing upstarts, these so smart, so-called heroes, they would be his guests at his hall soon enough and he would see what they were capable of.

The huge pillars of oak had been labouriously brought by teams of six horses and the combined effort of all the slaves was needed to position each of the central pillars into the post holes that the Draoidhs had arranged down the central aisle of the hall while seven strong men were needed to hoist each pole into the rafters overhead so that the roof could be attached.  

The long hall was split in two by a walkway, on either side of which were trestle tables and benches with groups  separated by panels of beaten bronze laced with gold swirls and interlocking circles so that all had a space around the huge central hearth.

Every imaginable aspect, whether it be shape, plan, embellishment, pillars and facades, portals and design, was such that the whole outshone its parts. Artisans had expertly filled the inner wattle walls separating the area, fit for queens, furnished with the cured furs and pillows, the benches draped with quilts and skins, from the feasting hall for the men. A massive platform spanned the forepart of the hall, its facing panel studded with rich stones and the burnished metal of shields and naked swords. On that platform were the seats for Conor mac Nessa, king of the Ulaidh and the leaders of Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch warriors, before whom all trembled.

All of which Bricriu could easily look down on from the loft off to one side among the rafter beams, which he had built, knowing the men of the Ulaidh would not tolerate him to be at his own feast.

Making sure there was a full supply of food and drink, he set out for EM to deliver the formal invitation.

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Conor was sprawled on his bench, idly looking at the boy troop exercising on the sward outside the Craobh Dearg when Fergus nudged him, alerting him to Bricriu’s approach.

Sencha sat up straighter and looked at the king enquiringly.  They had discussed Bricriu’s impending visit and they all knew that nothing would suit the cantankerous man unless they all immediately responded with enthusiasm to his invitation to a feast at his newly erected feasting hall at Dun Rudraige. It had been more than two hands worth of moons since he had first suggested holding a feast for the Hound of the Ulaidh and all attempts to delay the inevitable had finally stopped but the Ulaidh were still not resigned to going. Bricriu stepped a pace closer and looked at the faces of the men on the dais before looking around him scornfully.

‘I’ll tell you this much and I’ll tell you no more but what with the expense it has put me to, in not only its construction and victualing, but also in its style and grace, I will be hard put out if the brave warriors of the Craobh Ruadh do not deign to honour my hall with their presence.’

‘We will need those nine hostages,’ Fergus reminded him.

Bricriu ignored him and continued, ‘I will cause enmity between lords and men, between heroes and champions if they will not come to my feast.’

‘Listen to him Conor, worse things will happen,’ Fergus pleaded.  ‘If we go with him it will mean mayhem.  But if we must go, we must go on our terms.’

Bricriu shrugged. ‘I will cause enmity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and even between the two teats of the women until they are red, raw and bleeding and begin to grow hair and rot,’ he continued.

‘By the gods around us.’ swore Fergus, ‘I will not attend this bitter feast for I tell you now, that our dead will outnumber us if we accept.’  

‘If I may suggest’. Sencha intervened, ‘Perhaps, Fergus, you would reconsider if Bricriu not only withdraws from his very own feast but also permits a nine-man troop of your choosing to guard and protect him at all time.’

Conor nodded sharply at the former king and Fergus grunted ‘I will only attend if you yourself, Bricriu, are not present.’ before slamming his mug down on the table, sloshing some of its contents over his bunched fist. 

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An Old Celtic of Love and Death – Part 7

A Ewe between Two Rams

Smoke lay heavy in the night air as the burning thatch on the Craobh Ruadh spread down from the rafters, the flames licking hungrily at the seasoned, dry wooden walls of the old building. Eoghean had stamped away to bury his clansmen and to drown his anger in the vat of Ol nguala leaving Conor to curse at the flight of the brothers with his woman.

“You have to help me here, Cathbad,” Conor pleaded. “Who better than yourself to remember the prophecy when it was you, yourself, that made it? Help me now before this goes any further. Lookit, haven’t I already lost a fine son? What more do you want me to lose?” he went on, the sullen rage he felt at Crúscraid’s impotent attack and Conall Cernach’s desertion welling up inside him.

“I tried to warn you with that prophecy but you refused to listen, Conor. You were a fool then and you are a fool now, bringing doom on all of us,” Cathbad thundered, his staff thumping the stone flagged floor of the great hall.

“Offer them terms of peace, yes, … peace and friendship, I swear it,” Conor insisted. “Tell them that they need not fear us but swear fealty to us and all will be forgotten, for who would refuse the services of the mighty lords of Uísliu.” Conor cursed deeply inside himself and continued to press the draoidh for a solution to make the brothers put down their arms.

***

Cathbad guessed all three had been wounded to some degree in their frantic flight and would be unable to travel far. There was only one place in the vicinity where they might feel safe, he guessed, the most likely place such a group would flee to. And yet, there was just a chance that the prophecy could still be averted if he could find the brothers and talk to them. He did not fear for his safety at their hands for he was a draoidh and although no one went willingly into the dark woods at night for fear of the little men and the Sídhe that roamed the woodlands, Cathbad encountered nothing except a large white owl which swooped silently down from the trees on his left as he approached the standing stones on the crest of the low hill to the south of Eamhain Macha.

The stones, the height of a tall man, formed a crude circle fifteen paces across. One of the stones had fallen and Cathbad caught the glimmer of a small fire inside the circle from where he stood.

There was a sliver of a moon, now, cold and high and the night was bitterly cold and Naoise, fearing they would perish without a fire, had built one carefully in the lee of the fallen stone in a small dip in the ground.

“You need not fear me,” Cathbad said softly as he stepped out from behind one of the taller stones and watched the girl jerk her head up from where she had been lying, curled up beside the small fire.

“Cathbad? Is that you?” Naoise stood up from where he had been sitting on a small rock beside the woman, his sword extended.

“I come with a message from the king,” the draoidh said solemnly, stretching out his arms so that his robe clung to him, outlining his spare figure. “An offer of peace with terms of friendship. Wrongs have been done on both sides but enough blood has been spilt. This madness must stop now for the sake of the kingdom. Lay down your arms now and swear fealty again to Conor. This time he means it, I am sure,” the draoidh continued, seeing the hunger and the need on the tired faces of the men. Deirdre was pale and, except for the crust of dried blood on her arm from a jagged cut, she seemed unhurt. “Don’t listen to him,” she begged. “Don’t you see? It is another trap. Conor will never stop, I’m telling you.”

The draoidh moved over to where the girl crouched and gently examined the gash on her arm before opening a small vial and smearing honey on the wound and binding it tightly with a scrap of linen he took from within his robe.

“Beauty can stir feelings of hate as well as desire in some men’s breasts,” Cathbad continued, staring into the girl’s frightened eyes, “But Conor now seeks peace with you if you will only swear fealty to him and to the kingdom. “ It’s the only way,” he went on and leaning forward, from his closed fist, he threw a handful of herbs and aromatic twigs on the fire around which they all sat. There was silence then as the colour of the fire changed and sparkled brightly before a thick and pungent smoke filled the air around them. Cathbad waited a few moments before slipping easily to his feet, and watched as talk around the fire died out and the woman remained silent.

***

“You fool,” Cathbad hissed, “don’t you see what you have done? You told me that you needed their strength to repel Medb of Connachta’s schemes and that there would be peace between you and them if they would only lay down their arms and swear allegiance to you.”

“I’m the fool, am I?” Conor snarled. “You think I would let my honour, my laws, my very rules be flouted by upstarts like those bastards. I treated them with honour and grace until they wounded a loyal retainer of my guest. Blood calls for blood, you know that but my hands are clean.” He laughed cruelly, switching mood suddenly. “My good friends from the far Dá Mumhainn will be more than happy to exact vengeance for me, seeing as that bastard brood destroyed many of their clansmen,” he nodded his head in the direction of the doors.

“Come,” he declared, walking outside the hall to where dawn was approaching and a thin streak of grey edged the blackness of the night. The three young men and the girl were kneeling, their arms securely tied behind their backs, on the pounded earth beside the white path. Conor’s force had surprised the somnolent group who had put up little resistance when they had burst out of the darkness and they had been led back, yoked at the neck and with their arms tied behind their backs, to the inner circle inside Eamhain Macha where Conor waited, gloatingly, for them. Beside him stood the black bearded giant, the king of Fermagh, Eoghean Mac Murthacht who glowered at the captives. The faint grey light blended into a pale salmon pink along the horizon as the sun hovered behind the trees to the east.

“With your permission, my lord, these outlaws have wounded my own nephew, slaughtered my unarmed men, insulted my house and honour and only blood can wipe clean the measure between us.”

Conor paused and looked at the object of his envy, hate and fear. Any king, he reminded himself, would be loath to take back such traitorous, oath-breaking bastards as these black-hearted warriors for soon enough, he knew, they could turn their schemes on him and his kingship. He motioned with his head and a retainer pulled the woman away from the three kneeling men.

“It is I, your grateful ally, that should beg favours of you, my noble lord,” Conor said, gravely nodding his head, exulting within as Eoghean Mac Murthacht drew his sword and stepped forward towards Naoise.

Eoghean paused a moment, as if feeling the weight of sword in his hand, before his shoulder muscles bunched as he rose the heavy blade to chop down towards Naoise’s exposed neck when Illand, lying unnoticed on the path beside Naoise, his life blood trickling away from the gaping holes in his back and belly, gathered his draining strength and surged to his feet in front of the kneeling Naoise. The sword hissed down, cutting deep into the corner of the youth’s neck and shoulder. Eoghean cursed and used his booted foot to push Illand off the blade before swinging it again and burying it deeply in the other side of his neck, almost severing the head. He jerked the sword free and prepared to strike anew at Naoise when Ainle called out, squinting up at Eoghean. “Hold your hand there, and a request, if it pleases you. Kill me first, I implore you for I am the youngest of my brothers and would not wish to see those whom I love more than life itself, be killed.”

“Listen not to him,” Ardan cried. “I would not have it so. Being the youngest, Ainle should live yet the longest of us three. Kill me first, I beg you.”

“Do neither such thing,” Naoise called out “for here at my side I had the sword that Manannan, the son of Lir, once gave to our clan and for a while I carried it as befitted the leader of our clan and the stroke of it cleaves cleanly through all; so strike the three of us together, and we will all die together at the one time as we have lived all our lives together.”

Mac Murthacht looked around for the sword and called out for it but the sword no longer hung by Naoise’s side. A bondsman came running out from the hall nearby where the sons of Uísliu’s arms had been heaped inside the door.

“A fine blade,” he said admiringly, throwing aside the tooled leather scabbard and extending the blade towards the captives. He sighted along the dull sheen of the dark iron blade, the thin groove along the top inside of the blade for the blood to run, making it easier to pull the weapon out of the clinging flesh.

“Lay down your heads, then lads and let it be known that I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh, do so treat the traitorous scum of my proud ally, the king of the Ulaidh.” And he slashed down hard and expertly so that the three heads of the young men bounced together on the hard ground as the blood spouted and pooled around them and one bound body twitched a last time.

A roar of thunder sounded and the noise rolled over Eamhain Macha for a count of three as Conor looked up from the blood-splattered Mac Murthacht to the darkening eastern sky where thick clouds blotted out the sun. Lightning flickered within ripe, plum-coloured clouds.

Deirdre shrugged away the restraining hand of a tall man with a ragged fringe of hair, his drooping eye, bloodshot and fearful gaping at the scene around them and rose to her feet, crying pitifully, whipping her long fair hair from side to side as she violently swung her head backwards and forwards. Throwing herself forward, she fell across the headless torso of Naoise and tenderly kissed his chest three times before allowing herself to be pulled up like one who had lost her wits.

“Come now to my house, my queen,” Conor said, stepping forward and cutting the thongs that bound her hands behind her back. “There is no need to be fearful, or to feel hatred or jealousy or sadness for together we will make a new future for the Ulaidh and the kingship.”

Seeing Deirdre glance bewilderedly at Eoghean and himself, Conor smirked and winked at the blood-streaked ruffian beside him.

“Come now, Deirdre, you have the cute look of a ewe caught between two rams. I am a fair man and I’ll give you a choice – a night with my good self or a year with my friend here,” and he nodded towards Eoghean standing over Naoise’s headless body before pulling her close to him, his arms encircling her slim figure.

Deirdre raised her arms around Conor’s middle and her small hand touched the bone handled knife he had used to cut her bonds and she seized it quickly, pushing Conor away and holding the knife to her throat.

“May your bones grow hair and rot, Conor Mac Nessa, false king of Eamhain Macha and treacherous dog that you are, for that is no choice at all. Know this, false king Conor, for you have brought destruction on yourself and on your clan for no one in the Ulaidh will profit from your actions this day. Gone from this world are the sons of Uísliu and with them the spirit of nobility, the courage of the truly brave, for they dared all for a woman’s love and know that I gave it freely to them that set me free from the bonds of your rapacious desires.” Deirdre thrust the dagger up under the soft part of her throat and remained proudly standing for a moment before her legs gave way and she slid gracefully to the ground, her blood mingling with the pool surrounding the sons of Uísliu.

The End

 

An Old Celtic Tale of Love and Death – Part 6 (the penultimate part)

Treachery

Levarcham had had neither word nor sight of her beloved foster daughter since that fateful day so many seasons ago when Deirdre had watched the scaldy crow stick its beak into the bright red blood of the freshly slaughtered calf on the snow bank and had dreamt of finding a young man with the same colouring of white, black and red. Now she hurried along under the over-hanging eaves at the rear of the great hall to the lodge of the Craobh Ruadh. Turning the corner, she gasped at the sight of heavily armed men massed around a campfire at the back of the red lodge. Strangers, she realised, from their accented way of speaking and their dress. Unlike the men of the Ulaidh, they wore short, knee-length trews under their loose tunics, while shaggy cloaks hung from their shoulders. Ducking back out of sight and keeping her head down and her hood tightly pulled around it, Levarcham scuttled as fast as her old legs could carry her around to the front of the lodge where Ardan opened the door to her tentative knocks.

Deirdre threw her arms around the neck of her old nurse and Naoise saw a flash of that warm smile he had been denied ever since Fergus’ arrival at Glen Etive a handful of nights before.

“Deirdre, my love,” the old nurse crooned, holding Deidre tightly in her arms. “Listen to me now, love of my heart, for I fear deceit at Conor’s hand, and such treachery here at the heart of the Ulaidh can only bring about the end of peace from this day out.”

“Speak your mind, old one,” Naoise said gently, gesturing behind his back at his brother. Ainle quickly fetched the old woman a warming draught of wine and between sips she told them of the fierce men she had seen gathering at the campfires behind the Red Branch. “Shut tightly the doors and the windows of the lodge and put a guard on them,” she begged, “for Conor has been drinking all day with Eoghean Mac Murthacht and now he himself has sent me to bring back news of you, to see if you are still lithe and lissom and as beautiful as I see you now to be.”

Deirdre blushed and hugged her nanny again before the old woman continued. “Oh Deirdre,” she wept, “My old heart wearies within me for doom and death I fear is fast approaching, the killing of kith and kindred and the crying and wailing of women in the night for why else would Conor have the men of the western clans from Da Mumhainn, encamped outside, led by that black-hearted Fermagh king? The honour of Eamhain Macha and the pride of the Craobh Ruadh is to be stained tonight.”

“But is not the one they call Cú Culainn, Sétanta the son of Súaltaim, not here?” Deirdre cried, feeling the despair wash over her, a sour taste in her mouth.

“Would that he were, my love,” Levarcham said, “but he stays with the lady Emer in

Dún Imrith and he knows nothing of your arrival here, I am sure. Ériu will not be the better for it to the end of time and the world.

“And stout sons of Fergus,” she said, turning to Illand and Buinne who crowded near to hear her words, “Defend what your father could not and keep them in your care bravely till Fergus comes, and you will have praise and the blessings of the Ulaidh for it.”

Deirdre hugged her nanny again and the two women wept and comforted each other in their own fashion until Ardan advised Levarcham that she should not tarry overlong with them if Conor had charged her to report on Deirdre’s looks and although the old woman wept piteously to leave Deirdre’s side, she returned to Conor to give her report.

***

Conor was lounging in his high chair on the low platform at the end of the great hall, his thin, dark face heavily flushed with the wine he had been drinking. Eoghean Mac Murthacht and his nephew, Gelban, along with a host of other western clansmen, sat at trestle tables on either side of Conor, holding mumbled conversations which slowly stopped when Levarcham was ushered into Conor’s presence.

“Well, woman, what news have you brought me?” Conor demanded, sitting upright and placing his bunched fist under his chin to stare at the old woman commandingly. “Tell me this much and tell me no more, how does that woman look?”

Levarcham shook off the arm of the retainer who held her unnecessarily tightly above the elbow and looked up at the cruel, dark face of the king.

“Good news, I have for you lord, good and, I fear, disappointing too.” She began hesitantly.

“Right then, tell us the good news first,” Conor ordered, clapping his scrawny hands together and rubbing them so that the rings on his long fingers clinked together. “I always like to hear good tidings, isn’t that right, Eoghean?” and the black bearded giant guffawed his approval.

“The good news is that rarely have I seen such a trio of stout champions and warriors. Any lord in this western isle and further beyond, to the gates of Scythia and the burning sands of Parthia, would welcome them, for upright they are in their moral certainty and the faith they hold in their fierce weapons for they are men not likely to waver in the shield wall or in the storm of sword and spear. However,” Levarcham paused and snatched a look at the darkening face of her lord before dropping her eyes to the flagstones at her feet and continuing, “the lady you asked about, the most precious charge I have ever had the grace to look after, she who was the most fair woman in all Ériu, she, I have to tell you, has not weathered the storms and vicissitudes of life so well for she no longer possesses the form and appearance of a maid but closely resembles the old woman that I have become,” and she wept and tore her thin, grey hair in despair.

Conor drained his goblet before smashing it down on the bench beside him. “Go on with you now, woman, for I have heard enough,” he said, dismissing her and gesturing at Crúscraid to refill his goblet before inviting Eoghean to join him at the high table.

“Don’t tell me you believe that old crone,” Eoghean said dismissively as Levarcham was led, shuffling, out of the hall. “Sure wasn’t she the bitch’s wet nurse and what do you expect from her – the truth is it?” Eoghean laughed again, spittle flying from his open mouth and blackened stumps of teeth. “Send an impartial witness if you want the truth, that would be my advice. Here, lookit to me,” Eoghean drained his drinking horn and stabbed the pointed end, tipped with iron, into the rough surface of the trestle “Why don’t you send my own nephew here, for he has no love of the sons of Uísliu for wasn’t it their father who struck his own father, my younger brother, down.” He gestured at his empty drinking vessel before continuing. “If you want a fair report on the state of the woman who, by all accounts, you have gone to a great trouble to fetch back here to you, send him.” Eoghean lifted one haunch off the bench and farted noisily.

Conor looked over at Gelban who was sprawled beside his uncle, a resolute looking young man, his dark hair swept back from a clear brow with a plain linen band, his brown eyes sparkling with life.

“So your ould fella was killed by Uísliu, was he?” Conor noted the shadow that passed over the young man’s face. “Is that the way it was?” he asked, leaning forward and beckoning the young man towards him.

“That whoreson of a bitch, Uísliu it was,” Gelban burst out, “rot his heart, for my father had drink taken at the time and he was taken unawares, the poor bollix.”

“Go now then,” Conor whispered “and tell me what you see of the woman at Naoise’s side but take care not to let them see you.”

Gelban tightened the belt around his tunic and shifted his sword at his side more comfortably and bowed quickly to Conor before nodding to his uncle, and slipping away from the long table at the end of the hall. The air outside felt cooler after the heat inside the hall. It was already dark now with the moon not up yet and flickering torchlight cast shadows on the crushed white shell path. Gelban stepped sideways on to the plain beaten earth and moved silently towards the Craobh Ruadh. The heavy front door to the lodge was firmly shut and the small windows higher up in the wall on the side of the building that he could see were all firmly shuttered. Lamplight spilled out into the dark around the shutters and through the area under the eaves.

Gelban looked around for something to stand on and saw an unyoked chariot leaning against the wall of the opposite building, the Téite Brec, the treasury of Eamhain Macha. The chariot was lightweight but even so the wheels crunched on the shell-strewn path but the noise was drowned out by the men drinking around the corner at their campfires as Gelban manoeuvred the chariot under the eaves. He could hear voices from inside the hut but not yet make out the words. Turning the chariot carefully Gelban placed the long shafts of the yoke on the ground before climbing onto the platform and leaned against the lodge’s heavy log wall so that he could see through a chink at the top of the wooden wall and the overhanging thatch. Holding his breath, Gelban moved slightly to get a better view.

The woman was facing him, but playing a board game with a man sitting with his back to him. The unbound coils of the girl’s long, fair hair fell to her lap where she sat beside the hearth, the warm light glowing on her fair skin, pink as foxgloves, her eyes the blue of a western summer sea with the sun shining, her teeth white as pearls. Gelban moved cautiously higher on the back of the chariot to get a better view and suddenly the chariot lurched under him and the yoke grated against the side of the lodge. Deirdre glanced up at the sound, saw him looking down from the eaves and blanched. Naoise turned and threw with unerring accuracy the carved game piece he had been holding, making the blood spurt from his eye. But in the heartbeat before he lost his balance on the chariot platform and sprawled on the dirt below the eaves, Gelban had seen the simple beauty of the woman.

***

“And what appearance is there on Deirdre?” Conor demanded, ignoring the bloody wound in Gelban’s smooth face.

The young man drew himself up proudly, motioning away the clumsy efforts of his uncle to tend to his torn eye hole, making an attempt to focus on the king with his one good one, “If Naoise had not taken out my eye, I could have stayed there looking at her for a lifetime but I know you needed to know what I saw.”

“So what did you see,” Conor bellowed impatiently at the trembling youth.

“A slim, fair-haired girl with large doe eyes but there is not a woman in this world who is better in shape or of form than herself, for she is beautiful beyond all words,” the youth replied.

Conor grunted and sat back in his chair, and felt, as much as watched, the surge of anger build up inside him as he thought of what had been stolen from him that day Naoise fled from Eamhain Macha with his prize.

Gelban was being led away by a bondsman when Conor reached up above his chair and pulled the silver rod to which three golden apples hung. At the melodic chimes, the buzz of conversation died down and men turned to face Conor as he slowly rose to his feet.

“You see,” he declared, sweeping out his arm and pointing at the wounded boy. “This is how my hospitality is treated! I extended the hand of friendship both to you, valiant and stout hearted men of Dá Mumhainn and to your king, Eoghean Mac Murthacht of Fermagh as I have to those who are abusing my hospitality even now in the Red House. Like fierce wolves, they snap so recently at my very hand and my heart aches for the injury they have done,” Conor paused and nodded at the men standing around the hall, “is not against me but against you, my most favoured guest and allies.”

Eoghean lurched to his feet, sloshing wine from his drinking horn and threw his arm around Conor’s thin shoulders.

“Give me the honour,” he demanded, “of repaying your hospitality and of sealing the bond of our alliance,” before turning to gesture at men of his clan. “Everyone with me, we go to restore the honour of hospitality and to surround those oath breakers who spilled the blood of our clan. To the Red House we go to fight!” He roared, louder “Who is with me?”

Excited men tumbled to their feet, grabbing the shields and spears where they had propped them against the walls. Men hitched up their sword belts, gulped the last of what was in their cups and followed their king out of the great hall of Craobh Dearg to surround the Craobh Ruadh.

***

Buinne, crossing the hall to get some more meat, stopped when he heard the roar.

“Listen,” he said, turning to the others grouped by the fire. Ever since Deirdre had glimpsed a face at the eaves, they all knew that events beyond their control were now being set in motion. “They’re here,” he said, his voice tense.

Outside, drunken men shouted in rough voices and kicked at the solids walls or banged on them with the hilts and butts of their weapons.

Naoise stood up and patted Deirdre on the shoulder before striding over to the door to check that it was securely closed. “Who is it that disturbs the sleep of warriors, who dares to make such commotion in the area of the Craobh Ruadh?”

“Open up, open, bastards and oath breakers for it is I, Eoghean Mac Murthacht, king of the Fermagh and the western clans and we have come for vengeance for my brother and my nephew and to restore to king Conor of the Ulaidh what was stolen from him by you. Open or we will burn you out,” he threatened.

Inside, Deirdre paled and Naoise’s hand dropped to his sword hilt

“Is it the word of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch, you’d have me break?” Buinne got up and shouted angrily back through the solid door.

“I have no quarrel with Fergus or his sons,” bellowed Eoghean, “Nor do I owe allegiance to him but still I come for vengeance for my brother and my nephew.”

A heavy thud was felt as men outside started to use a battering ram to smash their way in.

“By Nuadu’s silver hand, though my father has broken his pledge with you, know that I will keep his word.” Buinne turned back from the door and looked at Naoise. “Help me here,” he cried, jumping up on a bench near one of the high shuttered windows. “Hold the shutter open for me while I slip out here and I can take them in the back and show them the class of man they trifle with.” Ainle climbed up beside him and held the heavy shutter open and helped Buinne wriggle through the small opening.

Landing lightly on his feet, Buinne grasped his sword and round shield firmly and crept around the corner of the lodge. A group of men, holding torches and drinking from flagons they passed from hand to hand, stood around the campfire while another, smaller group of men staggered under the weight of the battering log they were smashing into the door of the wooden inn.

“Mac Rioch,” Buinne screamed and holding his sword in front of him like a spear, he charged from the shadows into the line of men holding the battering ram.

He rammed his sword into a warrior’s lower belly and the man fell forward to his knees, clutching himself and squealing. Slashing at legs and shoulders with his long iron blade, Buinne whirled around fiercely, smashing the central boss on his shield into another man’s face, previously scarred by some ancient pox. Roars of anger erupted from the men by the campfire and Buinne raised his shield and charged again, knocking the first man off his feet with the fury of his charge, stabbing down as he stamped forward. Again he smashed his heavy shield into a dark face, blood spouting from a crushed nose and then, on the upswing, his sword cut up between the man’s legs, tearing up under his tunic and slicing into his guts. The man whimpered as Buinne twisted the heavy blade and then he ducked to ward off a wild blow, swinging and stabbing at undefended feet and ankles. A commanding voice halted Buinne’s bloody swathe through the surprised attackers.

“What great champion do we have here? Who is this that would wreak such havoc on my guests here? Surely no warrior of the Craobh Ruadh would ever disgrace himself so?” The voice was harsh but slightly slurred and Buinne raised his battered shield defensively, his bloodied sword extended warily.

Honeyed words might do the trick here, Conor thought to himself, aghast at the slaughter the young man had already wreaked, “Ahh, so it is yourself, the red-headed one, Buinne, sound man that your are. You are your father’s strong son, and there is no doubt of that, but lookit here to me, you and I have no quarrel with each other and these men you slay have no clash with you. What do you say?” Conor paused, “a block of land and …”

“And?” Buinne prompted

“A place at my table here and my own friendship and warmth. Or …” Conor gestured at the group of clansmen now standing shoulder to shoulder, their shield wall tight and Buinne realised he could make a choice here. Being friend to a king or to a widow made a difference, he knew, and from the size of the force gathered, he also realised that, with or without him, the brothers were doomed. Throwing down his sword, he stepped forward to accept Conor’s hand, “But I won’t fight against them,” he muttered.

Ainle had been peering out a through a shutter opened merely a crack and he called out in disbelief – “He’s surrendered, Buinne has thrown down his sword and gone over to the other side.”

Closing the shutter and securing it, Ainle dropped down to the bench and sat on it burying his head in his hands before looking up wildly at the others. “What does it all mean?”

“It means we fight,” said Illand. “Although my father and my brother have proved false in this matter to you, my lady, and to you all, I swear to you that I will die in defence of your honour and your safety.”

Illand shrugged away Ainle’s hand and jumped onto the bench under the shutter where Buinne had climbed out.

“Help me with the shutter,” he hissed, “I don’t want my sword to get caught.” Ardan climbed up on the bench and propped the heavy red wooden shutter open while Illand squeezed through.

Dropping cat-like to the ground outside, he moved furtively around to the front of the building where the warriors of the king of Fermagh had gathered. Of his brother, there was no sign. Slipping his left forearm through the rawhide straps on the inside of his leather bound shield, Illand wiped his sweating palm on his tunic before gripping his long iron sword firmly in his right hand. Cautiously, he peered around the corner again.

A group of battle hardened warriors, their dark cloaks blood-red in the firelight, their shields hanging on their backs, long swords and spears by their side, stood or squatted around the fire. Another smaller group of men, unarmed, were struggling to lift the massive beam of oak to renew the battering against the heavy red wood doors of the lodge. Illand counted his heartbeats while watching the men heave up the beam and stand silent for a moment, gaining their balance and adjusting to the unaccustomed weight. Another heartbeat as they staggered forward so that the end of the beam was at an arms length from the door and then they began to swing the heavy beam, gently at first, back and forward. More heartbeats and the beam began to reach its highest backward point before beginning its downward swing to smash into the door and, when Illand saw that the men would be most off-balance, he charged at the head of the group holding the pillar of oak, making the entire line of men stagger and fall, the beam trapping two men helplessly on the ground. Illand smashed his shield into the face of the unsuspecting warrior who had been standing at the rear of the line before swinging his sword and thrusting at the second in line, his sword sliding into his unprotected belly. Twirling he stabbed down at the breast of a man pinned down across his waist by the beam, smashing the sharpened rim of his shield into the neck of another trapped man.

“By right of the royal blood of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch, former king of the Ulaidh, I, Illand, demand the right to single combat in order to clear the stain from our name and to maintain the oath our father took when he guaranteed the safety of the sons of Uísliu on their return to the heartland, as sworn and agreed by you, false king, Conor Mac Nessa.” he called out defiantly.

Conor paused, his hand on the door to his hall, on hearing the proud vaunt, recognising the younger son of Fergus, amazed at the innocence of the youth in believing that honour could be so easily restored.

Crúscraid tugged at his sleeve, offering him another beaker of the dark wine he had been drinking since noon and Conor turned and looked at his idiot son. Crúscraid looked like a fighter, his hair cropped short and unevenly on his round head, his nose broken from long ago, Conor saw, but the youth’s arms and shoulder were massive and he smiled for the first time at his son.

“You were born that same day as Illand, the son of Fergus, curse him,” Conor began, “you knew that, didn’t you?”

Slack-jawed, Crúscraid nodded his great head shyly. “Leh-leh-let me fuh-fuh-fight him,” he stammered pleadingly

Conor paused as if to reflect on the suggestion before he went on, placing his thin hand on his son’s broad shoulder and feeling the bunched muscle there.

“You could fight him, right enough, couldn’t you? I would give you my very own shield, Ochain the moaner, and no weapon can pierce it. You shall have that and here, look,” he paused and fumbled at the sash around his waist. “Here,” he continued, handing the heavy thong from which his battle sword hung, to the youth. “Take this my own sword too, go, my son, and make that arrogant fool eat his words.

Crúscraid grinned and hefted the shield before knotting the broad rawhide strap around his own waist. Turning, he slid the sword free of its long, wooden sheath, inlaid with panels of bronze and held the sword aloft, before ducking his head to his father and turning towards the door.

***

The two men were equally matched in terms of age but in little else, for Illand was fit and experienced in the field of battle, yet he circled his opponent carefully for he could see the pent-up excitement and thrill the other man was feeling, despite lacking the skill or the experience to be a skilled warrior. In addition, he had no desire to kill the youth for they had grown up together and Illand knew that the stammerer was no challenge to him.

Crúscraid was not as tall as Illand, but he was broad across the shoulders and, holding his sword awkwardly in front of him like a spear, he charged, relying on his brute, animal strength. Not bothering to parry the blow, Illand stepped aside and smashed his heavy shield hard into his squashed face, flattening his already broken nose and then swung the flat of his sword at his legs, knocking him to the ground. Crúscraid crouched under Conor’s heavy shield as Illand swung his sword, clanging futilely, on the iron-studded, oaken shield which boomed dully with each blow. He paused, his sword upraised for the next hammer blow on the stricken youth at his feet when a sharp burning pain, almost exquisite in its sudden intensity, seared through his guts and he gazed in horrified surprise as the smooth iron tip of the ash spear, smeared with his own blood and gore, suddenly appeared beside his navel.

Falling forward, Illand propped himself up on his outstretched arms, he gaped back in disbelief as an old man, large and big bellied, with a great unruly mop of white hair, jerked the spear back from his body.

“It’s an evil thing you have done here,” Illand gasped, “for I was protecting the sworn oath of my father, Fergus Mac Rioch and myself that we would safeguard the lives of the noble sons of Uísliu,” before slumping, face down, on the bloody ground beneath him.

“By Lugh and all the gods, Conor,” Conall bellowed, leaning on his bloodied spear, surveying the dead scattered all around him, “’Tis a fine night’s work you have done here. What treachery is this for I will have no part of it? If it is not you under your own shield Ochain, so then it must be an imposter.” and sweeping the shield aside with one boot, he stabbed down again with the bloody spear, transfixing the cowering youth through the throat to the ground beneath. Ripping the blade free, a bright spray of arterial blood splashed his feet and the old man stepped back. “You have destroyed the sanctity of hospitality, broken your vows, Conor and made other – aye and better – men than you disgrace themselves and all for what? Let this be the end, now, of Eamhain Macha and let the prophecy be fulfilled for not one moment longer will I serve you or your kind. I curse the day that you were born. I leave you to your schemes, bad cess to you now and for always.” Throwing down the bloody spear, the old man stared down the warriors now all standing around the campfire and stalked away into the darkness.

***

“Who was that? Did you see?” Gasped Ainle, his mouth hanging open in shock. “He just killed Illand and then he killed Crúscraid.”

“And we’re next,” added a grim faced Ardan. “We are on our own now brothers and we must put our hope, as always, in each other and no longer make obeasieance to anyone at this time.”

The pounding on the front door to the lodge began again as new men took up the task of battering down the stout wooden doors.

“Look,” Deirdre cried despairingly, pointing as a wisp of smoke curled down from the thatch covering the solid rafters “smoke! They will burn us out even if the doors continue to hold.”

“Either way,” grimaced Ainle, the tang of smoke already in his throat “we can wait for them here and be smoked out like rabbits from their burrow or we can break out now and make a dash for it. Hit them when they least expect it,” he continued excitedly, “If we time it right, we can wrench open the door the moment the ram hits it and, then, while they are swinging it back to strike again, we slip out and head left towards the main gate. We let them blunder into the open doorway while we dash for our lives. It’s going to be our only chance.”

Naoise hugged Deirdre and then stood up to join his brothers.

“You’re right, little brother. Let’s do it,” he said, pulling his two brothers close to him so that all three could clasp each other’s shoulder, before turning to pick up his shield and going to stand at the girl’s side.

Ardan grinned and hoisted his shield and checked his sword was not stuck in his scabbard. From where he crouched, closest to the door, Ainle tried to count his heartbeats in between each thunderous boom of the battering ram and the roar of the men who pounded on the door again and again. Already, the posts on either side of the thick slabs of wood had shifted and he was relieved when Naoise shouted and he darted forward lifting up the heavy locking bar keeping the gate closed and toppled it to the ground. Jumping back as the heavy doors swung inward, Ainle and Ardan sprang forward, their shields locked and their swords outstretched like spears and stabbed and hacked at the men leaning back into their swing of the ram. Naoise rushed forward, his shield up, Deirdre clinging onto the strap around his waist and hacked back-handed at the nearest warrior he saw and then they were clear, avoiding the open campfire where the men had been drinking and heading towards the outer wall, the gateway to which was still open. Ardan and Ainle dropped back so that they formed a rear guard and Naoise led them at a fast trot across the open ground towards the earth wall where Scél sprawled next to a flagon of drink and the ditch.

To be continued